This case study was conducted between March and June 2018 and explored bio-sensing as digital touch in the context of parent-infant interaction. It emerged out of a recognition that a set of digital touch technologies were promising to reshape how parents were able to interact with their babies through a form of touch, starting in the womb. Be it the idea that touching a virtual 3D model of one’s unborn baby could alleviate maternal anxiety (FeTouch) or that a bio-sensing monitor could enable tracking baby’s health in and beyond the womb (Bumpe). A new wave of baby smart monitors caught our attention as having the potential to both complement and disrupt existing parent-infant touch practices, that is, the ways in which parents know their babies, and make sense of their health and wellbeing through touch.
We were fortunate to connect with Owlet, a baby smart monitor provider, who shared with us the reasoning and design decisions behind the Owlet Smart Sock (OSS). The OSS constitutes a small baby smart sock which allows parents to monitor their sleeping baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels via a mobile app and base station, both of which sound an alarm in the case of medical emergencies. The company lent us four OSS units to explore the monitors with British parents prior to Owlet’s launch in the UK. Beyond our interactions and interviews with the Owlet team, the case study comprised of focus group research with a total of 13 parents (and 12 babies), home visits with video re-enactments of ‘bedtime routines’, and the in-situ use of the OSS by four families over the course of one to three weeks. These were followed by reflective exit interviews. We employed the Owlet as a form of technological ‘probe’, in the context of an ethnographic intervention that considered how bio-sensing technologies like the Owlet might enter the space of parent/infant touch interaction within the contexts of the home as a research site. We also analysed the multimodal social semiotic complex and affordances of the Owlet – its packaging and components – alongside some of the Owlet marketing materials and online parenting ‘stories’.
The range of research encounters allowed us to situate the OSS both within families’ touch histories (themselves interconnected with social discourses, fears and sensitivities), as well as in the material-sensorial context of the home. We came to understand the introduction of the Owlet in relation to existing routines, sensory-technological environments, and participants’ understanding of their babies’ bodies in relation to their own. This took us beyond questions of digitally mediated touch as ‘replacing’ or removing parental touch and, instead, allowed us to focus on the kinds of touch the OSS did or did not provoke or prompt, and the meanings participants attached to the device. At the same time, our analysis put a critical perspective on the OSS as creating a desire for digitally mediated touch and moulding perceptions of the ‘right’ kind of parental touch, with bio-sensing technology offering (or enforcing) negotiations of infant autonomy and parental empowerment.
We presented preliminary insights at the Politics of Sensation Symposium of the XIX ISA (International Sociological Association) World Congress, Toronto, in July 2018. More details can be found in the following publications.
Leder Mackley, K., Jewitt, C. and Price, S. (2020) The Remediating Effects of Bio-Sensing in the Context of Parental Touch Practice. Information, Communication & Society.
Jewitt, C., Leder Mackley, K. and Price, S. (2021) Digitally Mediated Parent-Baby Touch and the Formation of Subjectivities. Visual Communication.