TopCat is an 18-year-old elderly female moggy who is having the time of her life in Scotland. TopCat has been self-tracking for 18 months, with her owner curious about why she had gained weight (a lady of a certain age? ), as well as where she went all day…
TopCat’s tufty area is short and fluffy, her floof jutting v-shaped under her more flexible spine. Her cat frown rises outward from twin creases above a snub nose (she’s a Himalayan Persian) and her pale strawberry blonde fur pushed down from her high flat temple to pick up the V-motif once more. She has the appearance of a blonde cloud. And she’s a regular killer of mice.
I’ve been interested in self-tracking since my late father bought a pedometer for our Guildford council house when I was eight years old and we tracked the steps from our council house to the local bakery for fresh doughnuts (3,477 steps). Counting steps has always represented a personal resonance with my surroundings, an interest in health, and a celebration of technological innovation.
This is why I began writing my book Household Self-Tracking During a Global Health Crisis in 2020. The goal was to consider how the commercialisation of health promotion through self-tracking technologies is symptomatic of a larger social and cultural health change marked by increased individual investment in and image construction of fit and healthy living. What I hadn’t anticipated was the same level of investment and interest in self-tracking with (not just for) pets.
TopCat had three additional ‘homes’ and four ‘owners’ who sought to cater to her every blonde furry whim, it was discovered by viewing her GPRS tracking data from a fitbit attached to her collar. Perhaps tracking your dog’s daily steps or your cat’s sleep patterns is ridiculous, but I’ve discovered that understanding the more ridiculous forms of household tracking provides better insight into health practices as a way of living in a world that is both in crisis and promoting breakthrough after breakthrough in health technologies.
During the course of writing the book, I became aware of how household health data practises extended care routines and opened intimacies in such a way that members (especially pets) could motivate and sustain healthy changes.
And, while I passed up the opportunity to conduct direct interviews with pets (for the next book), my research discovered that tracking with pets provided care and affective forces that were important in household relationships. Such absurdity may allow us to investigate new health connections made not only between people, but also between people and their digital devices, pets, and, in TopCat’s case, multiple homes. So, here is an ever-attentiveness to health to describe the caring intimacies and responsibilities deployed in health tracking in households with people and animals. Because tracking is viewed as an analytical category within the home rather than something exclusive to humans, health-related identities mean different things to different generations (human and pet), and focusing on interconnected health narratives allows us to unpack contextualised meanings. Pets, like technological confidence, class, generational, or gender relations, can be used in sociological health studies to understand household dynamics and the implications for other types of tracking and a sense of social responsibility.
My observation of self-tracking extending to furry members of households can be summarised as follows: Tracking practices increased support and contributed to the flourishing of happiness — even for animals. Pet health data may be considered novel or less important than people’s health data, but it reveals a strong positive association with tracking, as well as an interest in and preservation of intimate data. The novelty of the tracking activities (such as TopCat) is a strong motivator for the household to begin health pet tracking; however, this belies the serious point that maintaining such tracking with pets contributes to clear health outcomes and preventative actions, reinforcing the benefits and continuation of such activities.
In response to my general question ‘Do you like tracking?’ there was a strong emphasis on pet welfare. These aspects of my study revealed that households were just as interested in tracking with pets as they were in monitoring general health interests symbolising attachment to informal digital health practices and extension of responsive and caring approaches in the enactment of health monitoring, whether for people or animals.
In reading this book, I hope that you have a sense of the different aspects of health data and the combination of tracking behaviour. There is so much to untangle in household tracking, from the commercial organisations seeking to profit from health data, to the policymakers closely reviewing and analysing social uses of health data, to the education required to fully understand self-tracking data legacy in our lives.
Writing the book, in a state of global uncertainty around health when there were long periods for which we were confined to being at home, was terrifying, empowering, overwhelming, informative, and confusing all at the same time. Talking about household tracking with others immediately raised concerns about when not to track, especially when governments and global health policies are involved and trying to persuade us to adopt health tracking, if not impose it on us.
Despite growing policy initiatives, health tracking is a personal choice. There are very active communities focused on user data and privacy rights, patient record access, and open data that can help raise awareness of the different ways people can understand health data. In writing this book, the tension was clear between health data being used as a commercial asset for profit by some organisations, the role of public health providers such as the NHS in the United Kingdom, investment by government agencies and the level of control of users themselves. Households, or ‘bubbles’ as they were determined in the pandemic, provided an appealing and comforting narrative in the context of growing health uncertainties such as those associated with vaccination risk, the need to shield and protect extremely clinically vulnerable groups, and increased apprehension about policy-led decisions. The same bubble helped me in feeling a sense of protection: that I could provide for my family myself.
What is striking, having reflected back over the book and the pets featured in the last chapter, is how each of the households believed and invested so passionately in personal health responsibility. Growing fears about the pandemic translated into increased household tracking practices across generations, people, and even animals. I find myself thinking about how positive associations with tracking may obscure the recognition of emerging health anxieties and intolerance toward people who behaved differently from their household and from whom other household members sought to differentiate themselves. The health tracking narratives reveal that households serve as a focal point of meaning for perceptions of responsibility and expected behaviour. This may seem obvious, but research into household health dynamics has led to the expansion of reciprocal care, with adjustments in how commitments to the needs of dependent members were met within the home. Another manifestation of what is viewed as ‘risky’ health behaviour is being modified within households, while also connecting outwards to new social movements and various forms of single-issue and identity politics (e.g. ‘fitsporo’, food sustainability, anti-racism and gender politics), with health tracking helping to create new identities and challenge normative health images.
My sense of self is being remade because of my health tracking. I believe that a future of household tracking that allows access to and understanding of personal data is now an essential part of people’s social identities and the prevention of life-threatening diseases. For my part, being immersed in a home environment of household tracking has begun to untangle some of the complexity surrounding the treatment of those who are temporarily or permanently dependent on others for care. Care is a crucial domain that reveals the tensions between ill health and dominant societal values and roles starkly — especially for women.
The reader will quickly realise I am not happy with the increasing tendency to encourage profit from commercial health products. And, readers will make their own judgements here.
A version of this article was published on Medium.