The digitisation of everyday human bodies and health has taken another step forward with the introduction of a new service called the Fit3D Pro Scanner which takes a full 360 degree scan of a user’s body which then syncs with constantly updated physical data on the user. This 3D model can then be accessed by users to reflect on their exercise or dieting progress. Below is the description from the company who offer this:

“The Fit3D ProScanner captures a full 360 model of a human body,  then automatically extracts the most important circumference, height, volume, and length measurements

  1. A user logs in with his or her secure account information to the ProScanner
  2. The Fit3D ProScanner captures a full 360 model of a human body
  3. The Fit3D System then automatically extracts hundreds of circumference, height, volume, and length measurements
  4. Once processed, the user will receive an emailed report with his or her 3D image, measurements, as well as wellness trends
  5. The user can login to at any time to interact with his or her 3D body scans, measurements, as well as add or edit additional wellness assessment data”

While this does not necessarily contain any data which users cannot get from other tracking and analysis services,  by representing the data in a 3D, relatively, lifelike form the way in which users interact with it is likely to be different.

Sociologists have developed the term “data double” to describe the representations of themselves with which people are often faced in the contemporary world. Practices of surveillance and analysis break human bodies down into discrete and abstract readings which are then reassembled into a virtual form. The Fit3D seems a particularly pertinent and seemingly complete example of a data double.

The virtual representation of the human body has a long history from the paintings of Vesalius (see below) through X-Rays, CTs, MRIs and ECGs.

De humani corporis fabrica (27).jpg
De humani corporis fabrica (27)” by Andreas VesaliusBijzondere collectie Universiteit van Amsterdam. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Representation took on a particularly sophisticated 3D form two decades ago with the Visible Human Project which Cathy Waldby suggested had a profound impact on how we think about our bodies:

“…like all doubles, the figures displace what they seem to mirror and like all apparitions they return the familiar in unfamiliar form – the human reproduced and destabilised by the Visible Human Project”

Any representation is always partial and requires interpretation but pretends towards objectivity. This is why David Armstrong’s discussion of medical representation as a thought style is particularly important. As he shows (influenced by Michel Foucault) in his book Political Anatomy of the Body  the representations of human bodies in anatomical atlases make the body legible and understandable. For Armstrong:

“The atlas enables the anatomy student, when faced with the undifferentiated, amorphous mass of the body, to see certain things and ignore others. In effect, what the students sees is not the atlas as a representation of the body but the body as a representation of the atlas”.

By approaching these things as another form of artistic representation means that the technical achievement and importance for understanding is not undermined but it’s interpretive character is not overlooked.

What is happening currently, and can be seen with the Fit3D ProScanner, is the transfer of these processes of representation from the medical and professional to the personal, consumerist level. What impact does the democratisation of this kind of technology (making it accessible to everyone, not just medics) have?

I assume doctors have a sophisticated relationship to medical scans of this kind and understand them as partial and requiring interpretation. Will lay members of the public see them like this? I do not want to underplay people’s critical capacities as I am sure most people can understand the limitations of these representations. But when these kinds of partial representations, which are focused on specific measures, are so persuasive and pervasive as well as being reinforced in several different places they may take on a kind of hegemonic form. The partiality of the representation may get lost in the persuasiveness of the presentation.