Welcome Dr Jacinthe Flore, Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science

We are excited to welcome Dr Jacinthe Flore as SHAPS’s new Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science. Dr Flore is a Science and Technology Studies (STS) Scholar and a Historian of Medicine, who combines the Medical Humanities, STS and critical theory in her research. She has published widely on the history and application of technology in the fields of mental health, medicine, and the arts. Here Dr Flore talks with Carmelina Contarino about teaching, her new book, The Artefacts of Digital Mental Health, and what’s next in her research journey.

Which subjects will you be teaching and what excites you about them?

I’m very excited to contribute to History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne!

This semester and the next, I’m teaching Technology & Contemporary Life (HPSC20009). Technology is ubiquitous in our everyday lives and embedded in the institutions that we encounter. In this subject, I want students to develop a healthy scepticism of technology – neither utopian nor dystopian but rather an approach that enables them to ask complex questions about their lives with technology and resist techno-determinism. It is a dynamic subject where I explore a range of topics, from cyborgs to pharmaceuticals, biotechnologies to artificial intelligence.

In Semester Two, 2024, I will teach Exploring Digital Realities (HPSC30038). This subject will build on Technology & Contemporary Life and take further the idea that our social realities are being remade through digitalisation.

Can you tell us a little more about how digitalisation is changing our social reality and how those changes differ from our adoption of analogue technologies past and present?

During the first lecture of Technology & Contemporary Life, I share with students my story of growing up with technologies in a developing country in the early 1990s. I go through the Walkman and cassette tape, the floppy disc, the early days and wonderful sound of dial-up internet, and even black-and-white television!

Combining this experience with the technologies that I engage with now, I would say, of course, digitalisation has become more ubiquitous and increasingly affects personal aspects of our lives, such as our bodies and minds. Some technologies lie on the surface of bodies, such as a smartwatch, while others dwell within us, like the ingestible sensor. Scores of people experience life on social media. As reported in the media, many people embraced technologies to connect with colleagues, friends, and family remotely during the pandemic lockdowns – these practices endure for some. Alongside this, spaces such as digital cities, digital worlds, and digital museums have emerged, and they are expanding.

These changes are not unprecedented – there exists examples of these practices in the mid- to late twentieth century – but digitalisation is now more sophisticated. The personalisation of technologies through advanced algorithms, where an experience can be tailored to you and be entirely yours, is a significant transformation of the twenty-first century.

This being said, I want to put forward the caveat that I am wary of hype and techno-determinism. In my teaching practice, I endeavour to discuss a range of technologies, some well-established and some more speculative. Speculative technologies are a fantastic teaching tool because they always get students animated! However, I also caution students that these technologies need to be approached with critical perspectives. This is because the hype that surrounds new and emerging technologies easily obscures how uneven our access to technology is, and how technology often contributes to further entrenching socio-economic inequality. The expansion of the internet was promised as a kind of democratic town square. This is far from a reality for many people, especially those living in developing and non-western countries.

These subjects seem to be relevant to all students. Are they just for students of History and Philosophy of Science?

Everyone’s invited! Both subjects are open to students who are eager to explore technologies critically. The only prerequisite is curiosity and generosity.

I think the conversations across STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) and HASS (humanities, arts and social sciences) disciplines are fascinating. Students have a depth of experience with technology – whether because of what they study, or because of the presence of multiple technologies in their professional and personal lives – that they are usually keen to share and unpack.

Your research sits within the medical humanities and Science and Technology Studies (STS) and you have an interdisciplinary approach to researching technology. Can you tell us how this interdisciplinary approach evolved and how it influences your research?

Like many interdisciplinary researchers, my path in academia has been uneven. I am a historian of medicine and a scholar in STS. My first book, based on my PhD, is titled A Genealogy of Appetite in the Sexual Sciences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). It focuses on the medicalisation of sexual appetite in Europe and the United States from the nineteenth to twenty-first century. The book develops a critical history, informed by the medical humanities, of how techniques of the patient case history, elixirs and devices, measurement, diagnostic manuals, and pharmaceuticals were central to the medical question of ‘how much?’

After the PhD, I worked on several externally funded research projects that brought together health sociology, medical humanities, STS, as well as medical practitioners. In these projects, interdisciplinarity was essential! I looked at lived experiences of early menopause and physicians’ practices of care, experiences of complex mental ill health, and in my current Linkage Project we study the lived experiences of borderline personality as well as the perspectives and practices of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals.

I then spent four years as a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at RMIT University (including a year based in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society). My focus during this time was on the digitalisation of mental health and psychiatry. I’m fascinated by the history of medicine as a field of knowledge and a site of contestation, so I always endeavour to entangle the historical and contemporary in my research and teaching.

You have a recently released book by Palgrave Macmillan, The Artefacts of Digital Mental Health, can you explain what the book is about? What do you hope readers will gain from reading it?

The Artefacts of Digital Mental Health was written primarily during the pandemic – this was a particularly challenging time (as it was for everyone). The book was prompted by my interest in how we live with digital objects, or as I call them in the book ‘artefacts’ – how we imbue them with meaning, and how they come to be important in our lives. The question, then, is what is at stake when digital artefacts become bearers of our wellbeing?

So, the book analyses three artefacts that are prominent in the digitalisation of mental health: smartphone apps, wearable devices and ingestible sensors. It studies how psychiatry and psychology are harnessed in the making of these technologies, how the artefacts raise questions related to subjectivity, bodies, minds and care, and, importantly, how understandings of mental health are being transformed.

I hope that readers will gain critical insight from my book about how smartphone apps, wearable devices, and ingestible sensors are not simply technological objects — they’re also entangled in shaping our social and political worlds.

The pandemic caused a rise in mental health issues as well as in technology to assist with these issues.  Do you think these technological artefacts will be part of the mental wellbeing landscape long-term either as standalone products or as interfaces for practitioner interaction?

In 2021 I conducted a pilot study in which I interviewed young adults about their usage of mental health apps and wearable devices. The study also included a photovoice component where participants were invited to submit and analyse with me photos of significant functions on their apps or wearables, and/or photos of themselves using their wearables.

There was a broad variety and immense depth to how people use, tinker with, and sometimes abandon these technologies. For some, the artefacts acted as makeshift support because it was difficult and costly to see a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist during the pandemic lockdowns and their aftermath. When I asked about their imaginaries of how they would or would not use the technologies in the future, they viewed their use as necessary in their present, but not their future. They might use technologies less, or not at all. A few intended to keep the apps even if they no longer used it, because they liked the idea of holding a digital archive of feeling.

For others, the usage of artefacts predated the pandemic and was integrated in their everyday life, and even in their interactions with mental health professionals. I’m aware of therapists increasingly recommending app usage, primarily to help people relax, although in some cases tracking and monitoring through app data can become fruitful to the relationship between people and their therapist. One of the arguments in my new book, is that these technologies are transforming these relationships. They are simultaneously disruptors of so-called ‘expert knowledge’ on mental health, and they can buttress these roles. A staggering aspect of these technologies is their versatility, and their ability to become enmeshed in individual circumstances. They can become deeply personalised, especially because more sophisticated algorithms are expanding quickly.

The use of app-based mental health chatbots is an example of this expansion. It enables people to chat with an artificial intelligence program which helps the person go through a challenging situation or an experience of distress in detail, essentially acting as a personalised digital therapist.

Is the book designed for an academic or a more general audience or both?

It’s primarily intended for an academic audience, but I hope that it will be of interest to general audiences.

You gave a talk recently at the AusSTS 2023 conference titled ‘Thinking-Learning with STS’ with Dr Jaya Keaney (Gender Studies, University of Melbourne).  Can you tell us a little about that?

Jaya teaches Sexualities in Technoscience (GEND20010), which is a subject grounded in STS. We had been thinking about our practices of teaching and learning with STS separately, and we decided to write a conference paper on this topic.

Jaya and I have long grappled with the questions of how technologies are hyped, and how in our teaching we reproduce hype. In the paper, we approached technologies that are speculative – in Jaya’s example: the artificial womb; or existing but not widely used – in my example, the ingestible sensor in psychiatry. These technologies are fantastic case studies in the classroom because they activate students to debate their ethics and social implications.

However, a conundrum that we face is that when questions of ethics and social impact are raised about technologies that have existed for a while and are viewed as more ‘settled’, the engagement is sometimes different. It can be hard to generate debate because some technologies are viewed as not controversial or extraordinary enough. In the paper, we suggest that hype is an affective charge in the classroom – students can get into passionate debates about technologies, or hype can push them to conduct research to produce impressive critical arguments about technologies. The task for us, as teachers who think and learn with STS, is to mobilise hype to attune students to engage more deeply in the social and political life of all technologies, despite how settled they might look.

What will your next research project focus on?

My research since the PhD has continually touched on ideas of balance in the history of medicine and in contemporary times. There are other words that come to mind when we talk about balance: equilibrium, homeostasis, equanimity and so forth. And there has historically been an overlap between the idea of balance in medicine and equanimity in religion.

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by this area of medicine, particularly ideas of balance in relation to the vagus nerve, and between the brain and the gut, which is currently being discussed by gastroenterologists in research on brain-gut disorders, and how this balance is imagined by individuals, such as in wellness literature. I’m especially curious about how the concept of balance structures broader discourses in psychiatry about what it means to be mentally well. I am planning to write my next monograph on a history of balance in the mind and to this extent, conduct archival research at the Wellcome Library in the UK, Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin.

Dr Jacinthe Flore’s new book The Artefacts of Digital Mental Health was released in September 2023 by Palgrave Macmillan. Her first monograph is A Genealogy of Appetite in the Sexual Sciences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and her writing for a broader audience include articles on the sociological impact of technology, digital cities, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health in the arts. Jacinthe coordinates the second-year subject Technology & Contemporary Life (HPSC20009) and the new soon-to-be launched third-year subject Exploring Digital Realities (HPSC30038).