Productive Self and Burnout Body in Numbers: A Sociamaterial Investigation of Self-tracking and Health in China

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Zheng, Li
Singh, Jennifer
Prasad, Amit
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Self-tracking practices, facilitated by smartphone applications and wearables, have become increasingly popular, allowing individuals to monitor and analyze various aspects of their health such as steps, heart rates, and sleeping patterns. This individualized approach to health governance emphasizes productivity, personal responsibility, and self-surveillance. However, despite the promises of technological advancements in self-knowledge and behavioral change, the actual outcomes often fall short due to numerous factors including demanding schedules, exploitative workplaces, privacy concerns, and lack of trust. While scholars have critiqued the neoliberal model of health embedded in these technologies, it is crucial to situate the human-technology relationship within a broader social context, particularly in non-western societies. Understanding the complex interplay between technology, health, and selfhood, and how bodily data is produced, interpreted, and enacted within sociotechnical networks of health-tech, requires a nuanced examination. Empirically situated within the context of China's overworking culture, this dissertation examines the intricate relationship in sociomaterial assemblages of self-tracking and the ambivalence surrounding personal health. Through interviews, combined with digital ethnographic methods, the study draws connections between technological practices and social contexts. Drawing on theoretical frameworks from Science and Technology Studies (STS), this dissertation explores the meaning-making processes of health and fitness, the interplay between ecosystem of technology and users’ practices, and how they correspond with broader social and political context of health-tech and overworking culture. The dissertation investigates the influence of China's political economy on the health-tech market and personal pursuit of health, the ways self-tracking design and interactions shape health-related perceptions and practices, and how individuals actively navigate the intensive pursuit of health while managing potential risks through self-tracking and personal data. Based on empirical and theoretical investigations, this study concludes that the political economy of China, characterized by authoritarian governance and neoliberal techniques, has influenced the sociotechnical network by emphasizing productivity and self-actualization in an all-encompassing way. Technological practices mediate individuals' selfhood within this framework. The design of self-tracking technologies enables users to interpret health and fitness as personal achievements, aligning with the quantification and materialization of personal growth within an overworking culture. The logic of datafication and engagement, along with the pursuit of personal data, is manifested in productivity-oriented technological designs within a broader ecosystem of technological imaginaries. The promotion of technology-driven health management as tools for consumption has resulted in intensified engagements and conflicts in the ambivalence of self-care: self as source of productivity yet also vulnerable to burnout. Therefore, the relentless pursuit of productivity in the health-tech market and everyday life is often criticized by the overworked workforce as a reflection of societal "involution," an endless and purposeless competition. To counteract these trends, individuals utilize self-tracking technology and data as a means to create balance and resistance, aiming to construct a sense of self that embraces vulnerability. Technological practices act as mediators between individuals and their social contexts, particularly within the current political economy in China. In this regard, the sociomaterial assemblages of self-tracking serve as vehicles for agency, autonomy, and control in the face of stress, exploitation, precarity, and uncertainty. It is argued that critical scrutiny of technological design, as an integral component of these assemblages, should be undertaken in light of social context. Assessments of technological engagement and health outcomes should be complemented by contextual understandings of health and selfhood, leading to the reconfiguration and reaffirmation of users' agency and capacities.
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