Individuals on alert: digital epidemiology and the individualization of surveillance

Abstract

This article examines how digital epidemiology and eHealth coalesce into a powerful health surveillance system that fundamentally changes present notions of body and health. In the age of Big Data and Quantified Self, the conceptual and practical distinctions between individual and population body, personal and public health, surveillance and health care are diminishing. Expanding on Armstrong’s concept of “surveillance medicine” to “quantified self medicine” and drawing on my own research on the symbolic power of statistical constructs in medical encounters, this article explores the impact of digital health surveillance on people’s perceptions, actions and subjectivities. It discusses the epistemic confusions and paradoxes produced by a health care system that increasingly treats patients as risk profiles and prompts them to do the same, namely to perceive and manage themselves as a bundle of health and security risks. Since these risks are necessarily constructed in reference to epidemiological data that postulate a statistical gaze, they also construct or make-up disembodied “individuals on alert”.

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