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Soylent Diet Self-Experimentation: Design Challenges in Extreme Citizen Science Projects

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Quantified self-experimentation with personal diets is a popular activity among health enthusiasts, diagnosed patients, as well as "life hackers" pursuing self-optimization goals. In this paper, we reflect on self-experimentation practices in the context of amateur citizen science communities. We report findings from 11 month-long qualitative fieldwork in a community of nutrition hobbyists experimenting with a powdered food substitute "soylent". Our respondents customized the soylent powders to their personal needs, tracked their metabolic reactions to the diet, and discussed their findings with the online soylent user community. Although the data and knowledge sharing within the community positively impacted respondents' nutrition literacy, these activities created risks regarding their health safety and data privacy. We define soylent self-experimentation as a form of "extreme citizen science". Based on the limitations identified in the soylent community, we suggest a set of design recommendations for extreme citizen science projects.
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Soylent Diet Self-Experimentation: Design Challenges in
Extreme Citizen Science Projects
Markéta Dolejšová
National University of Singapore
11 Computing Drive, Singapore 117416
marketa@u.nus.edu
Denisa Kera
National University of Singapore
11 Computing Drive, Singapore 117416
denisa@u.nus.edu
ABSTRACT
Quantified self-experimentation with personal diets is a
popular activity among health enthusiasts, diagnosed
patients, as well as "life hackers" pursuing self-optimization
goals. In this paper, we reflect on self-experimentation
practices in the context of amateur citizen science
communities. We report findings from 11 month-long
qualitative fieldwork in a community of nutrition hobbyists
experimenting with a powdered food substitute "soylent".
Our respondents customized the soylent powders to their
personal needs, tracked their metabolic reactions to the diet,
and discussed their findings with the online soylent user
community. Although the data and knowledge sharing
within the community positively impacted respondents'
nutrition literacy, these activities created risks regarding
their health safety and data privacy. We define soylent self-
experimentation as a form of "extreme citizen science".
Based on the limitations identified in the soylent
community, we suggest a set of design recommendations
for extreme citizen science projects.
Author Keywords
Extreme Citizen Science; Self-experimentation; Self-
tracking; Health; Nutrition Literacy; Risk
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):
Miscellaneous
INTRODUCTION
Interest in citizens' participation in sciencemost often
referred to as citizen science is growing not only in the
public but also in academia, as we can see from Google
Trends [11] or the large number of ACM publications [2].
Most citizen science projects focus on public participation
in existing scientific practices through data collection and
annotation or puzzle solving [23]. In recent years, however,
we have seen an increase of citizen science-style initiatives
where citizens act as amateur researchers and participate
not only in the process of data collection, but also data
evaluation, and even define the research goals and methods
[12,30,33]. Inspired by University College London Extreme
Citizen Science (ExCiteS) research group we define these
activities as "extreme citizen science" [33].
In our study, we refer to extreme citizen science activities
conducted in a community of amateur nutrition hobbyists
sustaining themselves on a powdered food substitute called
soylent. While originally conceived as a DIY (Do It
Yourself) self-experiment by a young software engineer
willing to decipher food into a mathematically accurate
"nutrition puzzle", Soylent (with a capital "S") became a
successful Silicon Valley business, manufacturing an all-
your-body-needs nutritional product [26]. The official
Soylent formula was originally released as "open source"
and many people started experimenting with DIY powders
customized to their personal needs. To date, the powdered
foods dieters created and shared over 8600 custom-made
recipes [7]. As a generic denomination for all the powdered
blends inspired by the original Soylent recipe, the dieters
have adopted a lower-cased "soylent" [7,24] and we will
use it henceforth.
Both the soylent DIYers and users of the official product
often track their metabolic reactions to the powdered diet
and discuss their findings in a soylent user community
formed around three online discussion forums [7,24,27].
Besides sharing their personal experiences and self-tracking
records, the users discuss findings from existing nutrition
studies and advise each other to troubleshoot their soylent
self-experiments. By probing various health and nutrition
science hypotheses through dietary self-experimentation,
they build a bottom-up knowledge outside the formal
settings of expert food science and policy. We define these
self-experimentation activities as a unique form of extreme
citizen science that relies on community self-governance
and lacks any formal guidance by professional scientists.
The amateur soylent research consisting of health self-
experimentation and quantified self-monitoring represents a
hybrid case on the boundary of citizen science and self-
tracking projects typical for the Quantified Self movement
[22] and participatory healthcare initiatives such as
PatientsLikeMe [19].
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$15.00 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2998181.2998365
Our fieldwork comprised of observing participant activity
in the "soylent discourse" forum [27] and conducting
follow-up interviews with 43 users. We focused on the
impact of the online community interactions on participants'
nutrition literacy and their understanding of soylent-related
risks. Our findings reveal a positive relation between
participants' literacy and propensity for risk taking. Despite
being aware of potential risks, participants were willing to
experiment with their health and diet, and saw the online
community as a trustworthy source of essential information.
We have identified four main limitations of this reliance on
amateur community expertise, namely the (1) in-group bias
[5] and collective rationalization of soylent practices that
might lead to false beliefs in the safety of the diet; (2) lack
of personal and collective responsibilities for adverse
outcomes of their self-experimentation; (3) lack of research
protocols to frame the soylent activities, which can
invalidate the resulting findings; (4) ambiguous data
security settings of the soylent discourse forum and
resulting privacy issues. These ambiguities place the
soylent project at the center of current debates about the
challenges and opportunities of technological advancement
in participatory citizen science-style practices
[21,23,30,34].
Research Contributions and Goals
We frame our findings within the prior scholarship on
citizen science [12,13,21,23,34] and health self-
experimentation [4,14,15,17,18]. Scholars have voiced the
need to encourage lay people to become legitimate
producers of scientific knowledge, and highlighted positive
impacts of amateur science practices on participants'
literacies and self-awareness [8,16,32]. Although the
limitations of amateur science practices have been
identified as well [10,21,23] the issues around participants'
comprehension of risks related to these practices have not
been substantially covered. The issues surrounding risk
awareness in amateur citizen science projects are especially
important when self-experimentation is involved. Little has
been mentioned about self-experimentation in the prior
citizen science literature, and the strategy has been almost
exclusively discussed in the context of quantified self-
tracking initiatives [4, 14, 17,18,32]. For the soylent study,
we have combined both the citizen science and quantified
self-tracking perspectives, with the aim of understanding
how the soylent dieters perform literacy, risk awareness,
and responsibility for their self-experimental research.
Based on the limitations identified within the soylent
community, we conclude with a set of design
recommendations to support safe, secure, and ethically
sound extreme citizen science projects. Online community
interaction is usually an essential part of these projects, and
the identified challenges, opportunities, and
recommendations bear a high relevance for Computer-
Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) scholars.
RESEARCH BACKGROUND
Challenges in Extreme Citizen Science Projects
Citizen science is typically understood as any form of
active, non-professional participation in science that goes
beyond human-subject research conducted by professional
researchers [34]. Since its foundation two decades ago, the
discipline has undergone significant progress. A host of new
citizen science projects enabling diverse levels of citizens'
engagement has emerged across diverse areas of interest.
Muki Haklay [12] defined participation in citizen science as
ranging from (1) "crowdsourcing" where citizens act as
sensors, to (2) "distributed intelligence" where citizens act
as basic interpreters, to (3) "participatory science" with
citizens contributing to problem definition and data
collection to (4) "extreme citizen science" which involves
collaboration between citizens and scientists in problem
definition, collection, and data analysis. So far, the citizen
science domain has been heavily skewed to the
"crowdsourcing" type of projects [23]. Instead of critically
inspecting the possible impacts of the standardization and
professionalization of common-knowledge processes, this
citizen science realm often accepts the scientification of
everyday life as an a priori benefit. At the same time, there
have recently emerged voices highlighting the need to
rejuvenate the older and somewhat forgotten notion of
citizen science that questions the scientification of our
everyday lives and emphasizes the importance of including
policy issues [12,16,30,34].
This older notion is probably best summarized by Alan
Irwin who in 1995 questioned how science really serves
citizens and how citizens can participate in defining the
goals of scientific research so it can better serve their needs.
Citizen science in his view is a "science developed and
enacted by citizens themselves" related to "less-systematized
and contextual knowledges" generated outside the formal
scientific institutions, and defined by cultural, personal, and
social experiences [13]. The participatory model of extreme
citizen science defined by the ExCiteS group as "a situated,
bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs,
practices and culture and works with broad networks of
people to design and build new devices and knowledge
creation processes that can transform the world [33:np]”
builds on this critical approach. Rather than encouraging
scientist-driven public research projects, extreme citizen
science promotes "publicly initiated scientific research
where individuals engage in the creation and mediation of
knowledge to address issues that are of concern to them to
bring about change [33:np].”Within the soylent project,
which we define here as a specific form of extreme citizen
science, this concern revolves around the aspiration to
decipher current nutrition standards and improve personal
wellbeing. While relying fully on community guidance and
data evaluation, this strategy creates a unique form of
scientific participation, in which participants share, make
sense of, and act upon data generated through self-
experimentation.
Self-experimentation as Extreme Citizen Science
A self-experiment, a sub-type of the single-subject (n=1)
research trial, can help to gauge the effectiveness of a
lifestyle or medical intervention on an individual.
Regardless of its often-pronounced limitations regarding
statistical and ethical validity, reliability, and
generalizability of the n=1 findings [14,34] several
breakthrough discoveries attributed directly to this form of
research practice have been documented in scientific
literature [15]. Self-experimentation practices have evolved
rapidly in the recent decade due to the increased availability
of personal self-tracking devices, cloud computing
platforms, and networking tools that enable users to collect,
monitor, analyze, and share various data about themselves
[20]. Advocates highlight numerous advantages of the
modern, technology-aided self-experimentation: Not only
are the n=1 health trials cheaper and easier to conduct than
conventional clinical studies, but they also allow to study a
wider range of problems [31,32,37].
While the collection of self-tracking data is an individual
n=1 activity, the data evaluation often occurs within the
"n=we" setting of online peer communities [31]. A range of
online platforms where users can share results and
experiences from their self-tracking experiments has
emerged in multiple areas of interest. Among the most
popular is Quantified Self [22] where enthusiasts share their
self-tracking projects in the format of online discussions
and monthly show-and-tell meetups. Quantified Self
projects cover a broad area of interest, most often revolving
around personal health and wellness improvement, which
include physical and cognitive performance, sleep quality,
as well as diet experimentation [18]. In the context of food
and nutrition, self-experimentation communities such as
Quantified Self are increasingly showing that there is no
universal "healthy" diet, and that various nutrients affect
individual human biochemistries differently. This is also
evident from the growing interest in personalized diets and
nutrition plans tailored to specific biological needs and
behavioral patterns of an individual [38].
Another use of self-tracking has emerged around
participatory healthcare initiatives promoting patients'
actionable approach to disease prevention and treatment.
Online health networks such as PatientsLikeMe [19] aim to
connect patients with healthcare professionals in order to
create a knowledge and data-sharing space for mutual
support [6]. The sharing activities can be beneficial for both
the end users (patients) and healthcare providers who can
use the searchable archives of patient-generated data for
their own clinical research [6,31]. At the same time, the
exponentially growing volume of personal health data and
medical records made available through these services
raises some important questions about data ownership and
privacy. As pointed by [36] services such as
PatientsLikeMe are often not entirely clear regarding their
intentions of providing the user data to third parties. As
such, the end users might be unaware of potential adverse
consequences of their data-sharing activities. Self-governed
communities such as Quantified Self or soylent equip the
end users with a more substantial control over their data. At
the same time, the open access character of these platforms
makes the shared data prone to potential misuse by any
Internet user [4,14]. Furthermore, many projects initiated as
self-governed hobbyist endeavors ended up adopting a
business ethos and monetizing the data shared over their
services and products [4]. Even in these communities, the
hobbyist spirit usually keeps navigating the research
processes, which creates certain issues regarding the
validity and reliability of discovered findings. Healthcare
professionals often point out that amateur self-
experimenters might lack an appropriate expertise to
analyse their data properly, and the absence of a traditional
peer-review process makes their research scientifically
unsound [32]. Reliance on misinterpreted data might lead to
false conclusions about certain n=1 health treatments and,
hence, expose participants to health risks.
A deliberate engagement in the empowering but also risky
health self-experimentation can be driven by diverse
motivations. While the interests of the practitioners (end-
users) usually revolve around self-improvement, self-cure,
curiosity in new technologies, or a distrust in health policies
[8,18] the facilitators of data-sharing services (e.g.
developers of self-tracking technology and other products,
corporate healthcare providers, or academic bodies) may be
motivated by scientific advancement as well as by financial
profit [4]. The soylent community is a prime example of
this stakeholder diversity, and in many ways embodies the
challenges and opportunities in current self-experimentation
and extreme citizen science endeavors.
About Soylent
Conceptually, soylent is the idea that food can be quantified
to make meals that are simplified and nutritionally
complete. As a nutritional product, soylent is a powdered
mix of essential macro and micronutrients that are usually
combined with water and consumed as a liquid shake. Both
the idea and the product were pioneered by software
engineer Robert Rhinehart and went from his kitchen
tinkering experiment to a commercial venture in 2013, after
a successful crowdfunding campaign (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The official Soylent product. (Picture: Soylent, 2013).
To deliver his powder commercially, Rhinehart founded a
Silicon Valley-based venture Rosa Labs [26] and the
soylent community made up mostly of white male
technology developers [1,8] began to grow. This
demographic asymmetry has been a subject of critical
discussions highlighting the unequal socio-economic access
to soylent [8] as well as possible adverse impacts of the
simplified powdered nutritionism on the already vanishing
human-food relationship and traditional food cultures [9].
Soylent enthusiasts are largely located within the neoliberal,
efficiency-oriented realm of "life hacking" [4] and rather
than working towards a preservation of sustainable food
system, they aim at self-discovery, self-improvement,
geeky pleasures, as well as entrepreneurial goals [8].
Following the spirit of peer-to-peer and open source
sharing, Rhinehart also released his soylent formula without
license restrictions and invited the online world to tweak it
[25]. In the "soylent discourse" forum [27] founded by Rosa
Labs and the independently formed soylent reddit group
[24] users started discussing the rationale behind the soylent
concept. Inspired by Rhinehart's formula, many users
started experimenting with their own customized powders
and began sharing the recipes with others. The powder
tinkerers soon agreed to build a "DIY soylent" site [7], a
Github-like platform to share complete soylent recipes
tailored to their personal needs.
Figure 2. DIY soylent recipe (Picture: authors)
In response to a growing customer demand for soylent
meals, some DIYers eventually started selling their powders
commercially. Soylent-like powdered food ventures such as
Joylent, 100%foods, or Ketosoy popped up globally and to
date, there exist over 60 mutually independent soylent
vendors. The soylent community thus consists of three
types of consumers with diverse motivations and
consumption patterns: users of the ready-to-drink soylent
products, DIYers making their own powders for personal
use, and soylent vendors sharing their blends as a
commercial product. Regardless of the type of their
engagement, many soylent consumers actively use the
online community platforms (i.e. soylent discourse, reddit,
DIY site) to share recipes, experiences, ideas, as well as
their self-tracking data and medical records (e.g. blood
tests). The hybrid status of the soylent community as a
group of DIY hobbyists as well as an entrepreneurial
project is similar to the status of the Quantified Self group
[4]. However, based on our findings here, we see the
prevailing spirit of the community as one of sharing and not
driven by commercial activities, with users seeking to
provide support and feedback to each other. Although there
are numerous discussion threads dedicated to customer
feedback and solicited responses from the soylent vendors,
the users tend to flag any unsolicited promotional posts.
It is important to note here that not all soylent users are
actively involved in online forum discussions, and not all of
them self-experiment. Throughout our longitudinal research
of the community [8,9] we came across soylent consumers
who simply buy ready-to-use powders for the sake of
convenience, without putting much thought into its
nutritional composition or doing a research of any sort.
Here, we address specifically those consumers who
participate in online discussions and experiment with their
diet. According to the site traffic of the online soylent
platforms and a recent soylent user survey [1] these people
are definitely not uncommon among soylent users. Our goal
here is to use these active soylent self-experimenters as an
example, on which to discuss the challenges and
opportunities in current health self-experimentation and
extreme citizen science practices.
RESEARCH METHODS
This study is part of our larger ethnographic research of the
soylent community that we have been conducting
throughout the last 2 years (i.e. participant observation at
the 3 main community platforms; interviews with selected
users; content analysis of user journals; public workshops
and tasting probes). The findings reported here come from
our 11 month-long qualitative fieldwork (June 2015May
2016) consisting of participant observation at the soylent
discourse forum [28] followed by in-depth interviews with
43 users. We will draw from these data to answer the
following research questions: (1) How do the data-sharing
activities in the soylent discourse forum impact users'
nutrition literacy and their understanding of risks related to
the experimental soylent diet? (2) What do the experiences
of soylent users tell us about the challenges and
opportunities in extreme citizen science projects?
Participant Observation
Participant observation as a method of data collection
enables the researcher to gather data across perspectives,
time, and in the phenomenon's natural setting [3]. The 3
main soylent platforms [7,24,27] serve as a space where
soylent users share data and knowledge, cooperate, and
form a community. The discourse forum is the busiest of
these platforms and to date (2016, October 30), the site has
over 9 400 registered users and 120 000 posts [27].
Although founded and operated by the Rosa Labs venture
as a site related primarily to the official Soylent product, the
forum is commonly used by all soylent consumers
including DIYers and users other soylent products. The
forum discussion threads are categorized into 9 thematic
sections: DIY, Feedback, Experiences, Nutrition, Biology,
Media, Meta, Cooking, and Cognition. The forum content is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
allowing the public to share and adapt the published
materials for non-commercial purposes.
We chose online participant observation over other less
participatory data collection methods (e.g. survey) to gain a
detailed insight into the community structure and working
practices. Rather than to elicit statistically relevant patterns
through a structured quantitative analysis, we aimed at
detailed understanding of users' data-sharing activities,
goals, and concerns raised in the discussions. Within the
scope of the fieldwork, we conducted regular daily visits
into the forum and monitored the latest user contributions in
the 9 discussion sections. We also subscribed to the soylent
discourse mailing list sending a weekly overview of the
most frequently discussed topics, which helped us to keep
track of the latest forum updates. The user comments
relevant to our research questions were downloaded,
transcribed, coded, and analyzed together with the
interview transcripts. To run the analysis, we used the
CAQDAS software NVivo.
Interviews
Interview participants were recruited via a convenience
sampling at the discourse forum and were invited by a
personal message sent over the forum's messaging system.
Out of the 43 interviewed respondents, 37 were males, the
majority of whom fell in the 25-35 years of age category.
That confirms the demographic asymmetry in the soylent
community. On the other hand, respondents had diverse
occupations beyond the scope of tech developers and
entrepreneurs: Among the interviewees there were also
university students, journalists, artists, and a
physiotherapist. The interviews were conducted either face-
to-face (n=34) or over Skype (n=9). The live interviews
took place in multiple locations in Europe (PragueCZ;
Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, VenloNL; Baden, Basel
CH; BerlinDE; ParisFR), Asia (Singapore, SeoulKR),
and North America (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose).
Each interview took 6090 minutes; all interviews were
audio-recorded, with consent obtained from all participants
(the research has been IRB-approved). Interview transcripts
were analyzed and coded in NVivo by using qualitative
thematic analysis. The interview guide included questions
covering participant's experiences with the diet and the
discourse forum usage as well as their nutrition literacy and
risk perception. To assess respondents' nutrition literacy, we
employed the method used in the Newest Vital Sign test
(NVS), probing the participant's ability to analyze a sample
of a nutrition facts label [35]. We chose the NVS method
primarily because it enabled the probing of the respondent's
knowledge of both macro and micronutrients which is
essential for the soylent diet practice. Furthermore, the
method required only a couple of minutes to administer,
which was a considerable advantage, as we also had to
cover other than literacy issues within each interview. Apart
from the nutrition label test, we relied on respondents' self-
assessment of their nutrition knowledge and its change over
the time spent on the soylent diet. We will quote the
interviewees as "participant xy" (e.g. P1, P2). The user
posts sourced from the forum will be quoted with a tag
"forum" included after each quote.
FINDINGS
We interviewed 21 soylent DIYers, 5 commercial soylent
vendors, and 17 consumers of ready-to-use soylent
products. The time scope of their soylent experiences
ranged from 1 month to almost 2 years. The majority of
respondents said they replaced 2 daily meals with soylent;
only 8 people claimed to maintain a full 100% soylent diet
on a regular basis. However, even the latter mentioned they
still occasionally enjoy conventional food, mostly during
special social occasions such as family dinners, parties, and
meetings with friends. The different consumption patterns
were driven by the respondent's different motivations. The
DIYers aimed at having full control over the content of
their blends and preferred nutritional customization over the
convenience of ready-to-use products:
(...) at my age, height, weight I "only" need around
1600kcal per day, which is something a lot of commercial
soylent-derivates don't offer yet. I like to fine-tune my own
customized recipe in a spreadsheet (P8).
Respondents who purchased a ready-to-use soylent product
were mostly satisfied with its nutritional composition,
although 10 of them mentioned they occasionally tweak the
purchased powder with additional supplements such as
nootropics or extra protein. The most frequent reason for
choosing a ready-to-use product over their own DIY
version was a lack of time or self-confidence in making a
safe soylent product.
Motivations
Participants expressed a host of motivations that drove them
to the soylent diet, most often revolving around their
personal health. This interest was driven more by health
self-optimization than disease resolution goals, with 34
participants being health enthusiasts with no diagnosed
conditions. Through their soylent experimentation,
participants aimed at nurturing their "long-term interest in
longevity" (P43) or simply "escaping the vicious cycle of
crappy foods available all around" (P10). Nine participants
used soylent to mitigate (but not cure) a diagnosed health
condition (e.g. IBS, food allergies). Except for one soylent
vendor who was motivated primarily by entrepreneurial
goals (P35), the interviewed vendors claimed to have a
personal interest in health issues and sought to design a
"perfectly balanced and nutritious food" (P37). All vendors
were former DIYers, which, to some extent, supports their
honest health-oriented intentions, but their affiliation as
business owners has indeed impacted their soylent-related
decisions and actions. For instance, (P32) mentioned that he
no longer discloses the manufacturers of ingredients used in
his soylent product, as it simply does not make sense from a
business perspective. On the other hand, (37) still provides
a full list of the ingredient suppliers on the DIY website.
Apart from health, other motivations included the relatively
little time and monetary investment required to make and
consume soylent (as compared to their previous diets). For
all respondents, soylent scored higher than conventional
meals:
I now view every meal in comparison to soylent. Every meal
is more expensive, less nutritious and more time-consuming
to make (...) the freedom that comes with soylent is
indescribable. (P12)
Although the original idea behind soylent was to create a
simplified, choice-free, inexpensive source of "all your
body needs" nutrition [26], the DIY aspect brought the
hassle of choice back:
I feel overwhelmed by the volume of misleading and non-
scientific food information (...) there is such a wide variety
of opinions on what is healthy for whom. And so here we
have Soylent - I mean the official company - coming with
just one option and that's it. No variety, no need to make a
choice. But I'm vegan, have tons of allergies, and I just
don't like the Soylent nutrient ratios...so I rather make my
own DIY version.” (P33)
The respondents' criteria for the healthiness of particular
soylent ingredients varied, with some preferring vegan
dairy-free soylents and others insisting on low-carb or
ketogenic formulas using heavy cream as a main source of
fatty acids. Although the original Soylent product uses the
nutrition ratios outlined in United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines, our respondents
were often skeptical about official dietary recommendations
issued by food policymakers and experts:
The EFSA [European Food Safety Authority] regulations
are scientifically outdated and politicized; it's like 5-10
years behind the current research. It makes perfect sense to
crowdsource the most recent data within the soylent group.
(P34)
Although most of the respondents claimed to use some
official dietary guidelines as a starting point for their
experiments, they often saw them as too universal and
vague to rely on fully. In that sense, the soylent group
aligned with the Quantified Self ethos of "becoming an
expert on and of oneself" [10]. Respondents were also
skeptical towards the intentions of "expert" food industry
corporations:
Well, the main criteria for most of the big food companies
today is the frequency of your purchase...no wonder we’re
left with sugary, fatty, crappy foods designed for addiction
rather than health. (P39)
For some respondents, soylent was not only an option to
decipher the generally ambiguous food information [29],
but also to lower personal dependence of proprietary food
supply:
I don't need to go to supermarket for months and it feels
kinda good to have this alternative. It's pretty cool to
be...well, at least partially...independent. (P26)
It is important to note that ingredients for both commercial
and DIY soylents are usually sourced from some
commercial food manufacturer (see the DIY recipes [7])
and the users by no means step out of the capitalistic food
production cycle. The concerns with quality of mass food
production were related to its nutritional rather than the
sociopolitical aspects. Overall, respondents were hesitant to
accept any fixed definitions of a healthy diet that are "not
based on clearly presented scientific evidence" (P43). To
back up their own self-experimental research, the majority
of them claimed to rely on Google Scholar or nutrition
science databases such as PubMed.com. However, even
after accepting this data as valid and trustworthy, they still
insisted on probing it in their self-experiments and forum
discussions:
I wouldn't say, I don't trust the government or industry
sources at all, but I'm a source myself as well. (...) I'm just
not a friend of a "click here, magic happens, result”
blackbox-thing. I'd like at least to try to understand things
I'm doing. (P8)
We were interested in the possible impact of this self-
experimental research on the respondents' nutrition literacy.
Nutrition Literacy
The majority of respondents mentioned that, along with
their soylent activities, they became more aware of the
impacts that diet has on human health:
I didn't know much before I've started with soylent, just the
basics but it has improved a lot along with the research I
did for my DIY formula. I needed to read a lot about
micronutrients, like for instance metals. (P7)
Both DIYers and respondents who purchased ready-to-use
soylents mentioned that they began to read more about food
and nutrition, and became more conscious about nutritional
aspects of common foods. The soylent dieters often insisted
on quantitative nutritional accuracy of their powders, which
is challenging especially regarding the micronutrient ratios.
To achieve a balanced soylent formula, they needed to
understand how specific micronutrients work in a human
diet. There are numerous examples in the "nutrition"
category of the discourse forum showing that the users were
indeed keen to do so. Users frequently discuss
recommended ratios even for less common micronutrients,
such as phosphorus, or folic and phytic acid.
In the interviews, we asked the respondents on their self-
perceived nutrition knowledge, and applied the NVS
method, probing their ability to understand a presented
sample of a nutrition facts label [35]. We used the fact label
of a ready-to-eat roast beef sandwich, an example of a
healthy lunch according to USDA (There are differences
between food labeling formats across various countries;
however most of the DIY soylents use the USDA format,
and all respondents were familiar with it). The majority of
respondents was able to understand the information on the
label, identify the product's nutrient ratios, and relate them
to the recommended dietary reference intake:
It's pretty good for macros actually. It has a balance of
macros and reasonable total calories. Above-average
protein. It has both fats and carbs. It's a bit high sodium
though and of course, the micros are mostly omitted and
doubtlessly a complete mess. The missing dietary fiber is a
concern. (P42)
We also asked the respondents to compare the ratios of the
sandwich and their soylent formulas. Most of them were
able to do so, although several respondents were not sure
about some of the values. As for the nutrition knowledge
self-assessment, respondents mostly claimed that they had
learned a lot about nutrition along with soylent, and their
self-confidence in nutrition issues had improved:
I suppose I'm now more aware of how do nutrients work
(...) I trust myself much more over the time spend in the
forum. For instance, I now add some extra supplements
such as vitamin D and C, zinc, and omega 3 on top of my
soylent. D because we don't get much sun here in Ireland,
omega 3 cause we have a history of heart issues in my
family. (P19)
Furthermore, some respondents also mentioned that this
newly acquired knowledge was relevant to their former
food choices:
I'm quite more aware of what I'm buying now. I deliberately
avoid certain products and brands that I no longer trust.
Before soylent, I always went for the cheapest of the
cheapest. (P29)
The above responses suggest that along with their soylent
practices, the dieters were able to develop a certain nutrition
awareness and expertise. The online soylent community and
forum interactions turned out to play an important role in
this literacy advancement.
Community Expertise and In-group Bias
Online community interactions play a crucial role in the
soylent practice, as the community gets together exclusively
online (and not through live meetups, such as the
Quantified Self group). We were interested to see if the
discourse forum users trust the advice provided by their
online peers. The participant observation has revealed that
the soylent discourse forum provided a friendly buddying
space for discussion, peer-advice, and even emotional
support. The users commonly shared their dietary struggles
and personal or even intimate information, such as the
impact of the diet on their mood, digestion, and bowel
movements. Overall, respondents described the forum as a
credible information source:
The online community, at least for now, is very conscious of
what's in the formulas, and users always post an alert in
case they see something wrong. (P4)
One of the main factors supporting this peer-trust was the
fact that the users were all active practitioners, who should
be the most capable in understanding the soylent-related
issues and providing help. Troubleshooting was a common
activity in the forum:
There is a lot of mutual feedback, people are sharing ideas,
but also research studies, not just personal opinions. And it
is quite easy to ask others for help if you are lost. Usually
someone responds in few hours. (P40)
Furthermore, respondents often highlighted the importance
of transparency and their belief in each other's noble goals:
Well, I don't see any problem trusting the people in the
community. We all pursue similar goals and are definitely
much more honest about what we say than big food and
health corporations. (P29)
Although soylent users do not always follow the same
goals, the community consists of individuals who share a
common pro-soylent attitude. It is therefore important to
address the potential presence of in-group bias [5] and
collective rationalization of user's soylent-related activities.
When a soylent critique was posted on the forum (e.g. a
hyperlink to some critical news media article), the users
often responded by arguing that critics do not have
sufficient knowledge of the soylent community. Such pro-
soylent justification might create a false perception of the
safety of soylent products that, however, have not been
subjected to any rigorous health safety testing yet. We were
further interested in finding out the extent that our
respondents were aware of the potential health safety risks
of soylent consumption.
Risk Awareness and Responsibility
While promoting long-term subsistence on a powder blend
made mostly of processed ingredients, the soylent diet is
often criticized for ignoring other qualities of food beyond
the quantitative nutritional efficiency, as well as for being
potentially hazardous to human health [8]. Even for the
soylent community itself, there is no clear answer to what
the "best" powder formula consists of (similarly as there is
no universal answer to what a "healthy" diet is [29]). To
answer to the common health safety concerns, the soylent
reddit forum FAQ simply suggests that: "We don't need to
know everything, just enough to be better than what we
have". At the same time, the FAQ also makes it clear that
risk is an essential part of self-experimental discovery:
"We're hackers, DIYers, and tinkerers, who have put our
own bodies on the line for an attempt to try something
new." [24]
Although none of the interviewees reported any major
soylent-related health issues, most of them were aware of
the potential health risks involved:
There is a lack of reliable research data from long-term
consumer studies or clinical trials. That's something that
the soylent community should ask for, but it would
obviously be expensive and time consuming to do that. (P1)
Respondents were aware that soylent was not a "perfect
nutrition" source as it is often stated in taglines of the
commercial soylent products. Some DIYers were also open
to acknowledge their own potential failures in soylent
making:
“Sure, it is possible that I have miscalculated the nutrition
profile in my soylent, but even if so how could that be
worse than food the filthy kebab place round the corner that
might give you food poisoning?" (P17)
Another sign of the risk awareness is the fact that many
respondents deliberately abstained from getting 100% of
their sustenance from soylent, even if they would be willing
to eat soylent exclusively. (P25) mentioned that he still eats
at least one solid meal a day, to “have some backup if...you
know...something goes wrong with the whole soylent
thing.”
Interestingly, the overall risk awareness seemed to motivate
the dieters to keep up with their self-experimentation. For
instance, (P1) mentioned that it only pushes him to learn
more about the nutrition science behind soylent:
I became more conscious and realized that there might be
something wrong also with the normal food you can buy in
a store (…) the point is that you need to study it by yourself,
not just simply buy and eat what is out there...you need to
do your research and understand what you eat.
The respondents often highlighted their ability to take care
of themselves and their willingness to take full
responsibility of their self-experiments:
(...) of course there are some risks, but as long as I'm the
one concerned and affected, I can deal with those risks. It's
my body, after all. (P10)
However, this proclaimed autarchy seemed to be a bit
shortsighted. The willingness to accept potential risks and
responsibilities was articulated only on a theoretical basis,
and none of the respondents had some 'exit plan' in case
soylent causes them a serious health problem. The majority
mentioned they would simply go to see a doctor a
professional who would put their body back in order. That
also shows some weaknesses of user reliance on community
troubleshooting and peer-help: Should an actual health
problem occur to the individual user, he or she becomes
invisible to the online community and troubleshooting
needs to be sourced elsewhere. Another drawback of
community collaboration that we have identified relates to
the privacy aspects of users' data-sharing activities.
Data Validity and Privacy
Apart from ideas and advice, many discourse users also
share their experiences in a form of daily logs, spreadsheets
with self-tracking data, and medical records (e.g. blood
tests). Fifteen respondents (the majority of whom were
DIYers) tracked their metabolic reactions to soylent such as
body weight, sleep quality, mood, and energy levels:
I track my soylent routine every day, I also track my steps,
my runs, my sleep cycle the more info I get, the more I
can feel better about myself. (P19)
Along with the sharing of this data in the forum, soylent
users usually aim at identifying possible causes behind the
outlier values in their self-tracking or medical records:
I've been on DIY soylent for 5 months now, and just got
most of my blood results (...) a few things are listed as out
of their proper range: Magnesium and Vitamin B6 are too
high. Total Cholesterol, Iron and Vitamin D are too low
(...) what changes should I make to my Soylent? (Forum)
Among the 21 replies to this forum post, there were several
suggestions for the author on how to improve his DIY
formula. However, the discussion ended up with no definite
conclusion or clear advice, with the last comment (uploaded
a year later after the original post) asking: "So...are you
dead or what?" Despite the initial efforts of both the author
and the other discussants to find some meaningful solution
to his problem, these efforts simply faded out over time. In
the interviews, some respondents confirmed they
recognized the loose structure of discussions about the
shared self-tracking data as problematic:
The way how people share their self-tracking records there
is rather random...there is no reasonable option to upload
more detailed charts and compare them with others. (P19)
The above example suggests that the discourse forum falls
short in providing sufficient space for systematic sharing
and peer-validation of user's self-tracking data. Even if
there are several thematic categories to structure the forum
discussion, the self-tracking records can only be shared as
hyperlinked content (e.g. a link to external spreadsheets).
Users can only post their data directly into the discussion
threads that do not enable functions such as visualization
through graphs or charts, which would enable easier
comparison. There were some efforts among the forum
users to create external applications designed specifically
for soylent self-tracking, such as the community-run
SoyLog app [28]; however, these have never been put into
full use. Still, the need for a centralized space for the
sharing of self-tracking data was voiced clearly:
A website where customers can journal their results and
compare with others might also be a very cool thing. Such a
site could aggregate the raw data and let people sort and
sift for compiled results that matter to them personally. Call
it crowd-sourced practical application data or something.
(Forum)
Some users highlighted the need for a synoptic
categorization of this data that would be useful not only for
themselves but also for potential beneficiaries outside the
soylent community:
I believe it would be in the public interest to make a page
where we can put in that information, and upload scans of
the physical reports. This way, we can graph results and
see changes over time on a subject-by-subject basis and
combine the data by age range/gender/etc. to see the results
for a certain demographic. Doing this would also pique the
interest of researchers from various institutions, which is
what we want. (Forum)
In a forum thread titled "Consensus on Soylent
Crowdtesting Protocols Needed" users discuss the privacy
concerns related to the idea of this open data-sharing:
We as a community need to establish some guidelines to
assist in the improvement of soylent research (...) My guess
is that all information we can provide would be helpful, but
measures to protect our privacy would be needed. (Forum)
The forum does not provide much clarity regarding the
security of users' data-sharing activities. As the official
owner of the forum, Rosa Labs claims to have the best
intentions in protecting their users' privacy. However, it is
not clearly stated how and with whom they are currently
sharing their data, nor what their future intentions are in this
regard. The data privacy issues were discussed also with the
interviewees:
Open sharing of my personal biodata certainly makes me
feel uncomfortable (...) I hope we will eventually put
together a process that would allow people to submit such
data anonymously and securely. (P22)
The ideas on how to ensure this security and accuracy
included, for instance, proposals to create crowdsourced
research protocols for self-experimentation:
Perhaps this [soylent research] is an opportunity to
crowdsource and then publish a protocol for self-testing,
supplementing and adjustment (...) it will not be pure
science but it won't be completely anecdotal either. (Forum)
However, these ideas have so far remained only on a
theoretical level, without any follow-up action by the
community members.
The soylent activities described in our findings are research
driven, but not framed as typical "big science". Although
these activities refer to some traditional scientific methods
(e.g. literature review, data collection and evaluation), they
do not adhere to these methods in a substantial manner.
That seems to be a considerable limitation: Although this
informal approach helps to generate and share the research
results much faster than what usually occurs in a formal
research setting, the lack of compliance with systematic
research methods and protocols is likely to deliver results of
limited validity and reliability. Sharing and reusing of
inaccurate data within the community might cause harm to
participants' health. Furthermore, it makes the self-
experimentation research scientifically and ethically
unsound.
DISCUSSION
Our findings reveal that the activities on the soylent
discourse forum positively impact users’ abilities to make
sense of complex nutrition information. The seamless
completion of the NVS test by most of the participants, as
well as the positive self-assessment of their nutrition
knowledge suggest that the soylent self-experimentation
helped in advancing their nutrition literacy. Their
experiments with various nutrition ideas and substances
enabled the dieters to become experts on and of themselves
and blur the lines between lay and professional forms of
expertise. At the same time, our respondents were aware of
the ambiguous safety of the soylent diet and the possible
health risks in self-experimentation. However, rather than
making them comply with pre-defined healthy-eating
standards, the respondents' risk awareness further
consolidated their dedication to self-experiment and self-
discovery. That, in turn, helped to advance their nutrition
literacy.
The soylent community put social media to full use and the
discourse forum creates an environment of trust, where
users support each other. The community support proved to
be an important factor that helped the members in their self-
experimentation. Despite these positive impacts, we have
identified the community reliance as problematic in four
main aspects:
(1) In-group bias and collective rationalization. Despite
pursuing diverse goals (i.e. self-awareness and
optimization; monetary profit), the soylent peers tended to
dismiss occasional soylent criticism expressed by non-
practitioners by highlighting the lack of critics' experiential
knowledge. This is problematic mainly for health safety
reasons, and this in-group bias [5] might blunt users'
abilities to identify potential adverse aspects of the
powdered diet. Especially for newcomers to the
community, this can create uncritical (and potentially false)
impression of soylent's wholesomeness. This finding is
aligned with [32] who identifies similar issues in the
Quantified Self community.
(2) Responsibility for soylent self-experimentation. The
reliance on the community as a primary source of
knowledge, advice, and troublehooting related to the diet
fell short when it came to actual health issues. The
community lacks any system to compensate for potential
negative effects of the diet experienced by individual
members. The peer support and responsibility for the
soylent self-experimentation simply stops, when the
individual leaves the realm of online discussions. The
responsibility issues are also noticeable when it comes to
the formal aspects of self-experimentation as a research
practice. That connects to the following third limitation.
(3) Lack of self-experimentation guidelines. So far, the
community has not been able to provide any data collection
and evaluation protocols to guide their self-experimental
research, which compromises its scientific robustness.
Inaccurate findings shared in the forum may misinform
users' decisions regarding their soylent experiments and
formulas. The discourse forum also lacks a synoptic system
for sharing of users' self-tracking data. The sharing options
are limited to the text comments and users thus share their
self-tracking records as hyperlinks to external spreadsheets,
which makes the whole system messy. A systematic sharing
of self-tracking data from n=1 soylent experiments might
reveal new findings and help ameliorate the gaps in users'
existing knowledge.
(4) Data security settings and privacy issues. The self-
tracking data and medical records uploaded by users are
often linkable to their demographic information. The lack
of any clear records of who, when, and for what end is
downloading the forum's content makes the user data
available for a free reuse as well as misuse. Although the
data from soylent users' self-experiments could deliver new
valuable insights into human biochemistry, the potential
misuse of this data by nefarious parties creates a room for
privacy infringements. This finding aligns with similar
privacy concerns identified in the context of
PatientsLikeMe and Quantified Self [14,36]. The diversity
of goals followed by self-experimentation stakeholders
creates a need to balance the data sharing altruism with
security-oriented data curation systems to protect privacy
and safety of all participating individuals. Although our
respondents voiced their concerns about these issues and
even proposed some ideas on how to ameliorate them, these
ideas have so far remained on a theoretical level of online
discussions. To balance this, the group would need to
extend their activities from mere online troubleshooting and
data sharing to a more critical and responsible reflection of
their activities.
Based on these findings, we would like to propose a humble
work-in-progress design recommendations for extreme
citizen science projects. Along with these
recommendations, we do not want to suggest that the
amateur research in extreme citizen science communities
needs to be fully standardized in order to comply with
professional scientific methods. Standardizing the amateur
research to enhance its acceptability by professional science
institutions might disrupt the supportive buddying
ecosystem of these communities. As we have shown in our
findings, the need for more disciplined research methods to
bring the soylent self-experimentation closer to professional
science standards was shared by some participants, but
definitely not all of them. Some respondents were clear
about their distrust in expert food policies and services, and
aimed at keeping the soylent-related knowledge processes
within the community. While respondents had no intention
of fully foregoing professional science, they nevertheless
insisted on exercising their agency by actively producing
their own data and interpreting it with the help of their
peers. This diversity of self-experimenters' motivations and
goals should be taken into consideration: Rather than
pushing for "scientisation" [10] of extreme citizen science,
our design recommendations aim at supporting the role of
participating citizens as autonomous and responsible
producers of knowledge about their bodies.
Design Recommendations for Extreme Citizen Science
Projects
Support the validity and reliability of findings
through peer-defined data-collection and evaluation
protocols. These protocols should be crowdsourced and
agreed upon by the communit members themselves.
Provide transparent feedback on the identity of
who searches, downloads, links, and uses the data shared by
users in real time and through logs. Enable customizable
privacy settings, similar to larger Facebook-like networks.
Support systematic data-sharing activities by
providing a clearly defined space for the reporting of
different types of data. That could include e.g. space for
self-tracking records categorized according to the type of
tracked activity, medical records with an option to compare
versions pre/post self-experimental intervention, or
thematically categorized narrative records such as
experiences or troubleshooting.
Create a system to encourage users to share and
discuss adverse experiences and negative outcomes of their
self-experimentation (e.g. health discomfort, abnormal test
results).
Promote a personal and collective responsibility
for the self-experimental practices; e.g. by setting up a
crowdsourced fund or other form of community safety net
to support members who experience negative effects of
self-experimentation.
These recommendations are informed by our study of the
soylent discourse forum and its users, but we would like to
extend them beyond the scope of the soylent community as
an inspiration for other extreme citizen science projects.
However, specific traits of each project would need to be
clearly addressed and reflected upon.
CONCLUSION
In our study, we examined how social, digital, and physical
practices surrounding the soylent diet support participants'
nutrition literacy and engagement with their personal
health. The soylent community shows that there is a
growing desire among consumers to self-experiment with
their health, even if risk and ambiguity are involved.
Although these activities can be seen as an unnecessary
hazard, they can also be understood as pioneering and
opening new avenues for citizens' engagement with health
and nutrition science. We framed these activities as extreme
citizen science and identified the limitations in terms of
ethics and policy. What we offer here is a set of work-in-
progress recommendations to help ameliorate these
limitations. We hope these findings will inform other
scholars interested in designing for active citizen
participation in health science and knowledge production.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We would like to thank the soylent dieters who participated
in this study for the time they invested in our research. We
also thank our reviewers for their insightful comments.
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... Experimenters use varying tests and measures to evaluate physiological health. Dolejšová and Kera (2017) used ethnographic methods 1 to evaluate the soylent experimenter/practitioner scene over a two-year period. The practitioners were found to be motivated by health and selfdetermination, all self-reporting an increased nutritional knowledge. ...
... Practitioners supported one another via social media 1 Methods included: participant observation at the 3 main community platforms; interviews with selected users; content analysis of user journals; public workshops and tasting probes to gather data about the practices of the soylent hobbyists. Note that this was understood to be "extreme" due to being bottom-up and participant led, and involving self-experimentation. Dolejšová and Kera, (2017) were inspired by University College London Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) research group. ExCiteS define Extreme Citizen Science as a "situated, bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs, practices and culture and works with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world". ...
... Experimenters use varying tests and measures to evaluate physiological health. Dolejšová and Kera (2017) used ethnographic methods 1 to evaluate the soylent experimenter/practitioner scene over a two-year period. The practitioners were found to be motivated by health and selfdetermination, all self-reporting an increased nutritional knowledge. ...
... Practitioners supported one another via social media 1 Methods included: participant observation at the 3 main community platforms; interviews with selected users; content analysis of user journals; public workshops and tasting probes to gather data about the practices of the soylent hobbyists. Note that this was understood to be "extreme" due to being bottom-up and participant led, and involving self-experimentation. Dolejšová and Kera, (2017) were inspired by University College London Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) research group. ExCiteS define Extreme Citizen Science as a "situated, bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs, practices and culture and works with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world". ...
Research
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Citizen science and food is part of a new programme of work to explore how we can involve the communities we serve when building the evidence-base on which policy decisions are made. Citizen science is an approach that can provide high volumes of data with a wide geographic spread. It is relatively quick to deploy and allows access to evidence we would ordinarily have difficulty collating. This methodology has been endorsed by the European Commission for Research, Science and Innovation. There is no one size fits all definition, but citizen science projects involves engaging with communities and asking them to be part of the project, either through engaging them in data collection or through other ways of co-creation. For participants, citizen science offers learning opportunities, the satisfaction of contributing to scientific evidence and the potential to influence policy. It can also give us data which is high in volume, has wide geographical spread, is relatively quick to deploy and that we couldn’t access any other way. Projects using these methods often involve engaging with communities and asking them to be part of the project. This can be either through working with them in data collection, or through co-creation. This report demonstrates that the research community are already undertaking numerous pieces of research that align with FSA’s evidence needs. This includes examples from the UK and other global communities. Participants in such research have collected data on topics ranging from food preparation in the home to levels of chemical contaminant in foods. The findings of this report outline that citizen science could allow the FSA to target and facilitate more systematic engagement with UK and global research communities, to help address key research priorities of the FSA.
... The same sentiment is shared by Leshed et al. [50] in their study of farming homesteads. In stark contrast, Dolejšová and Kera [28] studied an online community of nutrition hobbyists self-experimenting with food substitutes. Their findings point to radically different food values, in particular self-efficiency and self-improvement, that readily and uncritically embrace IT to track and share data of their self-experimentations. ...
... (b) focus less on replacing human senses with sensors [61], but instead stimulating curiosity and empathy; (c) foster both multi-sensory [60] and multi-species explorations; and (d) cultivate non-instrumental, symbiotic relationships with food [53] that decentre human self-optimisation [28] The key design principle we see when designing for more-than-human food worlds is to design towards the recognition and embodiment of relationality. Design could enable us to critically position and understand food and associated practices within larger structures at play in the food system. ...
Article
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Our food system is a socio-material, heterogeneous infrastructure whose complexity and interconnectedness often remains invisible to citizens. While moments of crisis expose the vulnerabilities and injustices underlying this system, this paper seeks to explore which processes and tools CSCW could purposely design to 'open up' food infrastructures and bring young and adult people in contact with different aspects of the food system to cultivate food citizenship from a more-than-human perspective. Through a collaboration with a local primary school and four different food organisations (a mushroom grower, a vegetable farm, a bread-baking community centre, and a food bank) in North East England, UK, we designed 'contact zones' that enabled a class of students aged 7 to 8 years to encounter socio-material food practices at each partnering organisation's site and in the classroom. Our insights show young people's rich engagement in the socio-materiality of place, food, and practices; how encountering food practices across very different sites helped surface the interconnectedness of the food system; and how the contact zones opened spaces to practice food citizenship. The paper offers design implications towards infrastructuring more-than-human food pedagogies. It discusses inherent power dynamics of more-than-human design collaborations, critically evaluates the role of technology in more-than-human relations, and presents three design opportunities towards a relational understanding of food.
... Personal research guided by self-tracking can be understood as a "missing link" within recent movements and paradigms such as "DIY science" (Ferretti, 2019) or citizen science (Hecker et al., 2018). However, with few exceptions (Dolejšová and Kera, 2017;Christine and Thinyane, 2021;Heyen, 2016), the connection between citizens "who do science" and selfresearchers "experimenting science" is not yet commonly considered from similar perspectives, and despite its clear alignment with highly participatory modes of "extreme citizen science" (Haklay, 2013), literature on citizen science hardly refers to these individual research-oriented practices. ...
Article
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Some individuals do not limit their self-tracking efforts to passively collecting and observing gathered data about themselves, but rather develop it into forms of self-research and self-experimentation, also called “personal science”. This type of N-of-1 research is relevant to the fields of personal informatics, patient-led research and social studies of science, but as a knowledge generation practice is still poorly understood. To fill this gap, we conducted 22 semi-structured interviews to investigate the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of individuals engaging in personal science activities, as well as shared goals and values present in self-research communities. Our analysis is based on a conceptual framework that integrates previous approaches in self-research, as well as in connection with citizen science, the scientific ethos and cooperation in peer production. We identify how self-researchers seek to go beyond personal metrics about their health and wellbeing regarding data provided by wearables, are engaged over time by individual involvement in technology and scientific-related activity, and collaborate following similar goals and values when learning and sharing empirical knowledge with peers. In this sense, personal science can be understood as a specific type of citizen science and an example of a more participatory and inclusive scientific culture driven by self-reflection, critical thinking and openness.
... What is important, Soylent and other CFs may be seen as related to tech-food utopianism, a "recent shift of Silicon Valley production beyond purely digital and internet-oriented realms towards broader social issues, such as public health or environmental sustainability" (Dolejšová 2020, 194). Because using (since to label this process as eating seems disloyal to traditional practices) Soylent involves calculating the best ratios of nutrients for one's own individual consumption and CFs fans often discuss the most beneficial diets in special dedicated chatrooms, meal replacements are also linked with such trends as biohacking, start-up culture, nutritionism, citizen science production, and the quantified self (Dolejšová 2020;Dolejšová and Kera 2017). The users of Soylent can be thus understood as forming a diet-tribe community centred around developing innovative eating practices dependent highly on technology and sharing interest in preventing the cursed food futures from taking shape. ...
Conference Paper
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In a world defined by the climate crisis and population growth, mounting concerns over food safety, security and sustainability may lead to seeing the future of food as cursed. “Food is failing us” (Rockström et al. 2020, 3), some experts even claim. Using the framework of commensality, this paper aims to examine two seemingly unrelated food projects as instances of contemporary response to the anxiety over challenges facing our vulnerable food systems. Commensality can be simply defined as “eating with other people” (Sobal and Nelson 2003, 181). This fundamental concept in food studies, an expression of the bond-forming potential of being at the table together, has recently been expanded to embrace a sense of holistic, inter-species connectedness with all organisms and forms of energy. According to David B. Goldstein (2018), such ecological commensality refers to a view of food in which it becomes “a metaphor for and momentary coagulation of coexistence” (54). This understanding destabilises the position of the human consumer supposedly at the top of the food chain and instead underlines the circular, changeable nature of the system we are a part of. However, the responsibility for securing a sustainable food system that this view necessitates does not preclude taking pleasure in eating. We can still derive enjoyment precisely from “accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes” (1990, 151) as Wendell Berry writes. A project developed by The Center for Genomic Gastronomy named To Flavour our Tears (2016) is a radical instance of this pleasure in connectedness which augments it by providing recipes for better tasting human tears which are to be relished by moths. Together with other similar instructions, like that for a sky burial that allows birds to dine on our flesh, the project emphasises that the role people play in food systems should go well beyond consumer responsibility. Genomic Gastronomers seem to be saying that full participation in commensal circles, and thus complete awareness of our status in the flow of nutrients, increases our pleasure. Meal replacement solutions, such as the notorious Soylent, constitute the opposite end of this commensal spectrum. Despite being marketed as making “complete, sustainable nutrition accessible, appealing, and affordable to all” (Soylent, n.d.), such products are “punishingly boring, joyless” (Manjoo 2014) not only in the emotional or aesthetic sense. They are a denial of ecological commensality. While To Flavour our Tears imagines an unorthodox scenario that gives prominence to people’s role as a meal for the other, products like Soylent replace the collective experience of eating with selfish and one-directional food intake. Although they are polar opposites, both projects constitute responses to a preoccupation with human consumption as a curse. Reference list: Berry, Wendell. 1990. What Are People for?: Essays. San Francisco: North Point Press. Goldstein, David B. 2018. “Commensality.” In Food and Literature, edited by Gitanjali G. Shahani, 39–58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Manjoo, Farhad. “The Soylent Revolution Will Not Be Pleasurable.” New York Times, May 28, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/technology/personaltech/the-soylent-revolution-will-not-be-pleasurable.html. Rockström, Johan, et al. 2020. “Planet-proofing the Global Food System.” Nature Food 1: 3–5. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-019-0010-4. Sobal, Jeffery, and Mary K. Nelson. 2003. “Commensal Eating Patterns: A Community Study.” Appetite 41(2): 181–190. Soylent. n.d. “Our Mission.” Accessed April 21, 2021. https://soylent.com/pages/our-mission. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy. 2016. To Flavour our Tears. Accessed April 21, 2021. https://genomicgastronomy.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/TFOT-Booklet.pdf.
... Soylent practitioners supported and collaborated accross the user-community. Whilst the scientific literacy is admirable, the authors are justified in their criticisms of the research, highlighting the importance of developing proper data handling and support structures within this and any future citizen scientist-led communities (Dolejšová and Kera, 2017). ...
Article
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To enhance sustainability, the food system requires shifts in production, processing and supply. Ideally, a sustainable food system should operate, not only to protect the biosphere, but also to provide nutritious, high-quality food, support social values, an equitable economy, and human and animal health. It should be governed responsibly within a supportive policy environment. Implementing these shifts is a task of immense scale; but citizen participation/engagement has the potential to help make sustainability a reality through distributed learning, dynamic sensing, and knowledge generation. Technological advancements in sensing and data processing have enabled new forms of citizen participation in research. When food system research is embedded within society it can help us to understand which changes toward sustainability work. Indeed, citizen engagement in food systems research has the potential to help bring citizens on-side, supporting the growth of a resilience food culture and sustainable practices (including dietary change). This commentary provides examples of how existing research and alternative food production systems and agroecological practices may provide possible frameworks for citizen participation in food system studies. We highlight potential future food and citizen science approaches. Widening citizen participation and encouraging the involvement of other food system actors, including those in local, national and international governance, is essential to capture the full potential of citizen science in enabling transition to a sustainable food system. For the research community citizen science offers engagement and empowerment of wider communities with science; collecting and analysing data; and creating viable solutions to food system and diet issues.
... At the same time, social media like Instagram and Facebook support the photographing of meals and sharing of cooking videos [11]. Practices of personalized nutrition [20] and DIY food sciences [28] are also gaining traction. ...
Conference Paper
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There is an increasing interest in food within the HCI discipline, with many interactive prototypes emerging that augment, extend and challenge the various ways people engage with food, ranging from growing plants, cooking ingredients, serving dishes and eating together. Grounding theory is also emerging that in particular draws from embodied interactions, highlighting the need to consider not only instrumental, but also experiential factors specific to human-food interactions. Considering this, we are provided with an opportunity to extend human-food interactions through knowledge gained from designing novel systems emerging through technical advances. This workshop aims to explore the possibility of bringing practitioners, researchers and theorists together to discuss the future of human-food interaction with a particular highlight on the design of experiential aspects of human-food interactions beyond the instrumental. This workshop extends prior community building efforts in this area and hence explicitly invites submissions concerning the empirically-informed knowledge of how technologies can enrich eating experiences. In doing so, people will benefit not only from new technologies around food, but also incorporate the many rich benefits that are associated with eating, especially when eating with others.
... Food has been noted for its pervasive nature in the domestic environment [17], making it into a topic that members of the public are generally able to relate to and reflect upon in user studies, such as those featuring envisioning and other forms of speculative design [23]. Examples of technologies in this vein that have been elaborated by previous research include automatic drone deliveries [53], recipe recommending systems [25], domestic food service robots [22] or diet personalization services [24]. ...
Conference Paper
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UbiComp has been envisioned to bring about a future dominated by calm computing technologies making our everyday lives ever more convenient. Yet the same vision has also attracted criticism for encouraging a solitary and passive lifestyle. The aim of this paper is to explore and elaborate these tensions further by examining the human values surrounding future domestic UbiComp solutions. Drawing on envisioning and contravisioning, we probe members of the public (N=28) through the presentation and focus group discussion of two contrasting animated video scenarios, where one is inspired by 'calm' and the other by 'engaging' visions of future UbiComp technology. By analysing the reasoning of our participants, we identify and elaborate a number of relevant values involved in balancing the two perspectives. In conclusion, we articulate practically applicable takeaways in the form of a set of key design questions and challenges.
Article
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In this paper, we reflect on self-tracking practices in the context of neoliberal ideologies – predominantly the quest for self-improvement as mediated by and affecting the individual. On the backdrop of Foucault's concept of governmentality and current academic research on the Quantified Self, we consider online accounts and reflections of people's self-tracking endeavours as they emerge from and exist in neoliberal frameworks. We will outline how they relate to and produce ideas of humanity as inherently risky, the construction of 'normality' based on individual parameters, as well as optimisation as a never ending imperative where new opportunities for improvement are paramount. Finally, we present and suggest ways of queering self-tracking in order to subvert and reconceptualise its practice in order to imagine and enable the emergence of different utopias.
Conference Paper
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The rise of citizen science as a form of public participation in research has engaged many disciplines and communities. This paper uses the lens of Participatory Design to contrast two different approaches to citizen science: one that puts citizens in the service of science and another that involves them in the production of knowledge. Through an empirical study of a diverse array of projects, we show how participation in citizen science often takes the more limited forms suggested by the former approach. Our analysis highlights the implications of limited participation and demonstrates how the CHI community is uniquely positioned to ameliorate these limitations.
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While the Quantified Self and personal informatics fields have focused on the individual's use of self-logged data about themselves, the same kinds of data could, in theory, be used to improve diagnosis and care planning. In this paper, we seek to understand both the opportunities and bottlenecks in the use of self-logged data for differential diagnosis and care planning during patient visits to both primary and secondary care. We first conducted a literature review to identify potential factors influencing the use of self-logged data in clinical settings. This informed the design of our experiment, in which we applied a vignette-based role-play approach with general practitioners and hospital specialists in the US and UK, to elicit reflections on and insights about using patient self-logged data. Our analysis reveals multiple opportunities for the use of self-logged data in the differential diagnosis workflow, identifying capture, representational, and interpretational challenges that are potentially preventing self-logged data from being effectively interpreted and applied by clinicians to derive a patient's prognosis and plan of care.
Conference Paper
A life without food – a leitmotiv of science fiction dystopias is becoming a voluntary choice for thousands of people consuming the powdered food replacement soylent. The DIY soylent powders are designed by a group of nutrition hobbyists who distrust existing healthy eating standards and crowdsource experimental soylent recipes in their online user forums. This DIY food-tech rebellion offers an opportunity to look at the issues around present food standards and policies from the HCI perspective. This paper reports findings from in-depth interviews with 21 soylent dieters, with the aim of identifying the risks and opportunities of the expert-amateur DIY food practices.
Conference Paper
Low-cost genetic sequencing, coupled with novel social media platforms and visualization techniques, present a new frontier for scientific participation, whereby people can learn, share, and act on data embedded within their own bodies. Our study of 23andMe, a popular genetic testing service, reveals how users make sense of and contextualize their genetic results, critique and evaluate the underlying research, and reflect on the broader implications of genetic testing. We frame user groups as citizen science publicsgroups that coalesce around scientific issues and work towards resolving shared concerns. Our findings show that personal genetics serves as a site for public engagement with science, whereby communities of biological citizens creatively interpret, debate, and act on professional research. We conclude with design trajectories at the intersection of genetics and creativity support tools: platforms for aggregating hybrid knowledge; tools for creative reflection on professional science; and strategies for supporting collaborations across communities.
Article
Quantified Self (QS) is a group that coordinates a global set of in-person meetings for sharing personal experiences and experiments with self-tracking behaviours, moods, and activities. Through participation in US-based QS events and watching online QS presentations from around the globe, we identify a function of ambiguous valuation for supporting sharing communities. Drawing on Stark's (2011) theory of heterarchy, we argue that the social and technical platforms supporting sharing within the QS community allow for multiple, sometimes conflicting, sets of community and commercial values. Community cohesion benefits from ambiguity over which values set is most important to QS members. Ambiguity is promoted by sharing practices through at least two means, the narrative structure of members' presentations, and what counts as tracking. By encouraging members to adhere to a three-question outline, the community ensures that multiple values are always present. Thus, it becomes a question of which values this sharing community emphasizes, not which value sets members present, at any given time. By leaving the tools and methods of tracking open − from sophisticated wearables and data analysis to pen-and-paper and storytelling − the community creates space for and embraces self-trackers with a broad spectrum of technological proficiency and interest. QS as a group capitalizes on circulation of knowledge valued somewhat ambiguously to sustain and grow the community, both encouraging and supporting the commercialization of self-tracking technologies while keeping technology developer interests from overwhelming community-building interests. This, we argue, has implications for researchers hoping to understand online communities and the ‘sharing economy' more generally.
Article
Elevated postprandial blood glucose levels constitute a global epidemic and a major risk factor for prediabetes and type II diabetes, but existing dietary methods for controlling them have limited efficacy. Here, we continuously monitored week-long glucose levels in an 800-person cohort, measured responses to 46,898 meals, and found high variability in the response to identical meals, suggesting that universal dietary recommendations may have limited utility. We devised a machine-learning algorithm that integrates blood parameters, dietary habits, anthropometrics, physical activity, and gut microbiota measured in this cohort and showed that it accurately predicts personalized postprandial glycemic response to real-life meals. We validated these predictions in an independent 100-person cohort. Finally, a blinded randomized controlled dietary intervention based on this algorithm resulted in significantly lower postprandial responses and consistent alterations to gut microbiota configuration. Together, our results suggest that personalized diets may successfully modify elevated postprandial blood glucose and its metabolic consequences. VIDEO ABSTRACT.