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Book Review: Jill Walker Rettberg's "Seeing Ourselves through Technology"

 

Jill Walker Rettberg
Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs, and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves
London: Palgrave, 2014
110pp., available for purchase or as a Creative Commons-licensed book on Palgrave's website
 

In journalist Andrew Keen’s #digitalvertigo, an anxious meditation on the impacts of the twenty-first century’s “social media revolution,” he describes a tweet he sends to his followers upon seeing the corpse of Jeremy Bentham: “I UPDATE, THEREFORE I AM.” Keen offers this tweet as a critical self-prophecy, a suggestion that status updates control the man more than the man controls the status updates.

It’s easy to slip into this pessimism, this desire to assume that self-expression online necessary reflects narcissism or a desperate desire for socil acceptance. The unprecedented accessibility and ease of creating updates and selfies makes it easy to fear the consequences of such constant engagement in self-tracking and self-expressing.

Jill Walker Rettberg’s latest book, Seeing Ourselves through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs, and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves, measuredly weighs the origins of “selfie” culture, the impacts of sharing data so freely on the Web, and the cultural impulses driving the popular desire to become a “quantified self.” Rettberg does not take a definitive stance on whether selfie-taking, self-quantifying, or engaging in endless public expression is completely valuable or absolutely destructive, and this is to her benefit. What Rettberg’s book offers is a collection of resources on many of the tools and practices that define digital self-fashioning in a contemporary world.

The book is divided into six chapters, the first three of which focus on self-representation and self-portraiture and the last three of which focus on self-quantification and the appeal of discovering the “truth” about one’s self through streams of data gathered by wearable devices and smartphone apps. What binds these six chapters together is their reflection on the appeal behind the ease and accessibility of representing and sharing information about one’s self online. Rettberg takes the stance that the appeal behind selfies, self-trackers, and self-quantifiers is rooted in a desire for self-improvement. She sees selfies primarily as a way for people to reclaim representations of themselves, to take control of their image and manipulate in whatever ways they see fit. For example, Rettberg describes how selfies can be ways for people of colorto reclaim images of themselves that do not always show up very clearly due to filters designed for white bodies only. Similarly, she sees self-trackers and self-quantifiers as ways for people to handle and control their own data about themselves, to find empowerment in tracking for themselves the number of steps taken or the amount of calories consumed. She uses the examples of mothers monitoring a baby’s feedings and weight gain as an example of a group finding empowerment in the ease and accessibility of self-quantification.

Of course, Rettberg acknowledges that the feeling of control implicated in selfie-taking and self-tracking is complicated by the fact that digital data gets publicly sold to marketers on the hunt for consumers. Indeed, in Chapter 6 in particular, Rettberg acknowledges how challenging it is for consumers to hide their personal data, suggesting even that only the very wealthy and the very technologically savvy can keep their purchases away from companies that sell their data to marketers. In other words, she acknowledges that it is nearly impossible in a digital age to hide one’s consumer identity on the Web, leading to problematic breaches in privacy and identity protection.

With all of that said, Rettberg’s book is much less concerned with fear-mongering than it is with suggesting how powerful digital tools can be for giving users flexible tools and options for tracking their lives. Interspersed throughout discussions of the selfie’s history and the development of the self-quantification movement, Rettberg often describes her own experiences trying and using digital tracking tools for herself. One of the most powerful examples is when she describes the days she spends using a tool called, “The Narrative Clip,” a camera that gets clipped onto clothing and takes a photo from the wearer’s perspective every thirty seconds (52-53). The Narrative Clip claims to give a user’s life a “photographic memory,” a collection of photos taken throughout the entire day.

 Even though the Narrative Clip is intended to capture the immediacy, and “the truth” of everyday life, Rettberg soon finds how inadequate the Narrative Clip is for capturing the daily moments important to her. The first problem Rettberg encounters is that the clip does not take photos at an angle that is at eye level for her; she realizes that the clip was designed for a “flat-chested” individual who could place the camera at chest-level and have the camera take pictures straight ahead. Because Rettberg has to accommodate her breasts, however, she must angle the camera upwards; the pictures all turn out to be photos of the sky or the buildings above her.

When Rettberg moves the camera to hip level, she encounters a similar problem; the camera is more drawn to taking photos of advertisements on walls and of strangers in coffee shops than of the children she picks up from school. By describing experiences like using the Narrative Clip, Rettberg does great work of showing both how selfies and self-quantified tools can be empowering, but also how they can be ineffectual at living up to their purported goals.

She ultimately finds that, in spite of the machine’s limitations, the human control over self-representation and self-tracking remains powerful. At the end of the book, she asserts that, “We no longer need to rely on others to represent us” (88).  While thinkers like Keen may find that status updates are a form of giving up ourselves to the digital, Rettberg, in contrast, asserts that status updates are a way to reclaim ourselves through the digital, to use the medium of the digital to make our own lives and positions clearer and more equitable. I found this conclusion particularly appealing and appreciate that it complicates the assumption that mediation necessarily means a loss of human control. Books like Rettberg’s continue to add to conversations about digital mediation and the ways that it impacts human relationships and understandings of the self. 

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