Translating the body and the self through dogs and machines
My presentation is based on an ethnographic study I am currently conducting in a California facility that trains dogs to recognize hypoglycemic episodes for people with Type 1 Diabetes. I follow how dogs' noses are transformed into 'reliable sensors' capable of alerting and giving feedback to human beings about the state of their bodies in situ-a specific form, I argue, of what we call the Quantified Self. I explore how these dogs are trained to manage 'the self' though the use of disciplinary methods, statistical methods (borrowed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology), and ethology. I show how dogs' behavioral and emotional reactions are constructed in relation with the environment they inhabit, and calibrated against numbers produced by machines (e.g., glucose meters) that are themselves used to calibrate the scent patches upon which the dogs' noses are trained.
If the facility I'm currently studying is adopting scientific methods and is run like a 'lab', it is also a non-profit organization based on the work of volunteers. It was created against the idea of making a financial profit (e.g., their dogs are given away at no charge); moreover, this organization offers something that they see as being neglected by the big corporations that design the machines that manage Type 1 diabetes: the 'love' of a dog, compassion, shared information, etc.
By following the creation of a management tool composed of a human, a dog and a machine-a symbiotic tool-I propose the emergence of a new definition of the self that doesn't stop at the boundary of the flesh. I argue that this distributed self could have practical implications about how we design machines and, at a theoretical level, about what kind of political system we could imagine.
Hélène Mialet is an anthropologist and philosopher of science. She has written several books, Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and The Anthropology of the Knowing Subject (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); A La Recherche de Stephen Hawking (Odile Jacob, 2014), and L'Entreprise Créatrice, Le rôle des récits, des objets et de l'acteur dans l'invention (Paris: Hermès-Lavoisier, 2008), and has published widely in both popular and academic venues.
Her new book, entitled, The Thinking Person's Disease. An Ethnographic Study of the Senses, is concerned with lay and expert knowledge in the management of chronic disease; the use of prosthetics, computer driven monitoring devices, and algorithms; networks of caregivers, patients, animals and machines; and questions of management and control and their relationship to experience, sensation, calculation and expertise. She is particularly interested in the implications that these human-animal-machine interactions have for our understanding of subjectivity, cognition, and human and Artificial Intelligence. She is Associate Professor of STS at York University, Toronto and presently a Fellow at the Centre of Advanced Study in Oslo.