History & Theory

Datasense: Sensor Technology and the Mediation of Sentience

History & Theory
12 Oct, 2017

Datasense: Sensor Technology and the Mediation of Sentience

2/5/2018 Video Online

Natasha Schüll, cultural anthropologist at NYU and UC Berkeley alum, discussed how self-tracking devices have affected everyday lives. Drawing from her new book, Keeping Track: Sensor Tehnology, Self-Regulation, and the Data-Driven Life, she touches on how wearable sensor technology may be changing the human consciousness through mood-regulating apps.

From apps that track how many steps a person has taken to how much water they've drunk, Schüll questions the ethics of outsourcing self-knowledge and the ways in which these devices could be better mediated and improved.

Watch the video below.

10/17/2017 Revisited Post

History and Theory of New Media Graduate Liaison Renée Pastel recaps Natasha Schüll's lecture Datasense, which took place on 10/12/2017

On October 12, 2017, Professor Natasha Schüll of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication made her triumphant return to UC Berkeley (where she completed her PhD degree in Anthropology in 2003) to present her work to a packed audience for the Fall 2017 History and Theory of New Media lecture series, in conjunction with the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society.

Discussing work from her forthcoming book, Keeping Track: Sensor Tehnology, Self-Regulation, and the Data-Driven Life, Schüll traced how she came to study the affective side of tracking the mundane aspects of everyday life. Coming off of a talk for the Sociology department the day before, “Lifestyle Algorithm: wearable technology as self-regulation,” Schüll focused her talk for HTNM and CSTMS less on design and self-governance of self-tracking devices and more on how it feels to outsource quantifying of lifestyle elements such as steps taken, water drunk, time standing, etc.

Beginning with research from her first book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Schüll unexpectedly connected the qualitative side of gambler logic at slot machines and in online poker matches to the experience and appeal of mediating self-measurements. Talking through the interviews she had done with gambling addicts on their affective self-monitoring, she proposed an origin for her thinking about self-tracking in the ways in which gamblers tracked their habits and altered behavior to optimize their returns and experience.

Hopping from gamblers’ initial desire to act in a fully rational, bot-like way and subsequent realization that this was not ultimately ideal, to what the ideal self might be and how it might be created, she moved to a brief discussion of self-tracker enthusiasts, some of whom belong to lifelogging movement Quantified Self. Haunted by questions of self-regulation and the ethics of outsourcing self-knowledge, Schüll’s talk ended by proposing a shift in the role of self-tracking devices and apps from “compass to thermostat,” information to guidance. Where these devices once directed users to self-regulate, they now tap, buzz and poke the user in the right direction to regulate the self, mediated by the device. She ended by asking the audience to consider, “What kind of self do certain algorithms contribute to or constrain?”

The Q+A period allowed further exploration of some of the ethical questions raised, as well as of Schüll’s link between gamblers and self-tracking device users that seemed to stem from a desire for a state of nothing or automation, in which the individual no longer needs to think autonomously. This in turn raised the distinction Schüll had only hinted at in her talk between the psychoanalytic self as volumetric, as opposed to the temporal depth of the tracked self. This Q+A period concluded with a dialogue around the self and robots/automating aspects of life. While Schüll was quick to acknowledge the more potentially disturbing side of self-tracking devices, she also emphasized the importance of such devices to particular audiences, such as those with young children and/or elders for whom they are responsible.

2017 HTNM: Natasha Schüll

Original Event

Having long employed technology to record, reflect upon, and regulate bodily processes, daily rhythms, moods, and even moral states, over the past decade humans have increasingly turned to microcomputational sensors and digital algorithms to manage these aspects of existence. Enthusiasts argue that the technology transcends the myopic vantage of real-time experience and takes the guesswork out of everyday life, supplementing users’ shortsighted perspective with a continuous, informatic mode of knowing (or “cyborg epistemology,” to invoke a term from the field of AI) that finds truth in the scattered points, correlations, and cumulative accretions of big data. Some users of the technology claim it affords them a “sixth sense,” a “datasense,” “digital insight,” or even acts as “a new sense organ.” As actions and states feed into data streams, so data streams feed into actions and states, becoming a vital aspect of felt experience even as it eludes the conscious grasp of human cognition. This talk explores how wearable sensor technology might be altering the terms of human sentience, focusing on self-trackers’ experience—and experiments—with mood-modulating devices and apps.

About Natasha Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Her recent book, ADDICTION BY DESIGN: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Princeton University Press 2012), draws on extended research among compulsive gamblers and the designers of the slot machines they play to explore the relationship between technology design and the experience of addiction. Her next book, KEEPING TRACK (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, expected late 2018), concerns the rise of digital self-tracking technologies and the new modes of introspection and self-governance they engender. Her documentary film, BUFFET: All You Can Eat Las Vegas, has screened multiple times on PBS and appeared in numerous film festivals.

Schüll graduated Summa Cum Laude from UC Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology in 1993 and returned to receive her PhD in 2003. She held postdoctoral positions as a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy and as a fellow at NYU’s International Center for Advanced Studies. She was a professor at MIT from 2007–2015, before joining the faculty at New York University. Schüll’s research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among other sources.

Schüll’s research and op-eds have been featured in such national media venues as 60 minutes, The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Capital Gazette, Financial Times, Forbes, Boston Globe, Salon, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Daily Herald, Las Vegas Sun, 99% Invisible, NPR, WGBH, and WNYC.

About the History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series

The History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series brings to campus leading humanities scholars working on issues of media transition and technological emergence. The series promotes new, interdisciplinary approaches to questions about the uses, meanings, causes, and effects of rapid or dramatic shifts in techno-infrastructure, information management, and forms of mediated expression. Presented by the Berkeley Center for New Media, these events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit:

We are pleased to present the following lectures as part of this year's 2017-2018 season:


10/12 | 4:00–6:00 PM | ​470 Stephens Hall
Keeping Track
with Natasha Schull
In partnership with CSTMS

10/17 | 1:00–5:00 PM | 310 Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall
Between the Digital and the Political: New Ecologies of Mind
with Erich Hoerl, Yuk Hui, Luciana Parisi
Panel Discussion
with David Bates & Warren Sack
With support from the Townsend Center and the Dean of Arts and Humanities

11/16 | 5:00–6:30 PM | BCNM Commons, 340 Moffitt Undergraduate Library
Porn Sequence
with Hoang Nguyen


01/29 | 6:30–8:00 PM | Osher Auditorium, BAMPFA
Indexical Ambivalence
with Kris Paulsen
In partnership with the Arts, Technology, and Culture Colloquium

03/01 | 5:00–6:30 PM | BCNM Commons, 340 Moffitt Undergraduate Library
The Software Arts
with Warren Sack
In partnership with CSTMS

Previous Next