Brown Bag Lecture: “Black Boxing Women: The Computerization of Natural Family Planning and the Consequences of an App-Driven World”

Brown Bag Lecture icon
Date: December 11, 2012
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Deanna Day

Personal medical care in the 21st century is increasingly organized around the principle of quantified self-surveillance; the standard biomedicalization narrative describes how a technologically implicated tracking impulse moves from the domain of professionals into the hands of lay users as tools become cheaper, smaller, and more accessible. This talk historicizes this trend by examining the practice of natural family planning, a method of determining fertility that has been practiced since the early 20th century but has become increasingly computerized in the last two decades. 

Performing the intimate work of charting daily symptom tracking has enabled practitioners to understand natural family planning as a holistic and natural approach to health care, while at the same time they increasingly came to describe their bodies as “walking biological computer[s].” In the early 21st century this metaphor of the body as a computer has become literal: computerized fertility thermometers seek to incorporate the interpretive labor of natural family planning (previously performed by individual women) into the black box of their processors, reducing output to a single point—a red or green light. The computerization of natural family planning did not result in less work for women, however, or in a more reliable awareness of their internal chemistry, as manufacturers of thermometers like the Lady-Comp claim. Instead, by altering what kind of data women receive about their bodies, computerized thermometers merely re-form women’s bodies and reconfigure their relationships to them and their medical tools. New bodily expectations and gendered labor practices result.

Deanna Day is a doctoral candidate in history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, where she researches the history of consumer medical technologies. Her dissertation research centers around the roles of gender and patient labor in the history of the medical thermometer.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

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