Can Our Bodies Ever Be Off the Grid? 

by Sarah Homewood

Sarah at the launch of Off the Grid.
We are usually never without our technological devices now. But a few years ago, a colleague and I deliberately stopped using our menstrual cycle tracking apps as part of our research on the design of menstrual cycle tracking technologies (Homewood, Karlsson and Vallgårda, 2020). In my field of research—human computer interaction (HCI)—we usually add technologies to people’s lives in order to study the effects they have on them. Instead, we wanted to see what would happen if we removed them. I removed Clue, my menstrual cycle tracking app, from my life for 18 months. During this time, I kept autoethnographic fieldnotes about my experience. Rather than being able to return to a “raw” or “neutral” body, my notes, included below, illustrate how the technologies we use shape how we experience our bodies at the deepest level of our embodiment, even after we stop using them, and that perhaps our bodies can never really be “off the grid”.
Gone but Not Forgotten My experience of removing Clue showed that I had internalized information based on a medical model of the menstrual cycle over the three years of using the app, and that I did not need to access it again in order to interpret my bodily sensations. This information, such as ovulation increasing libido, or PMS being experienced as depression or anxiety, remained in my memory and influenced my experience of my body even after Clue had been removed from my life. 

Although I could remember enough to interpret my bodily sensations, losing the ability to gain objective, external information about my body changed my bodily experience. I experienced “withdrawal symptoms” from my app. I used my experience of my inner body sensations to replace external sources of information from Clue. For example, as I wrote in my autoethnographic field notes, “I am hyper aware of every twinge of pain in my stomach as it gave me hope that my period would come soon.” I later reported, “When my period came, I felt a rush of relief. I was once again able to know for certain where I was in my menstrual cycle and regained control of my body.” As well as a general feeling of discomfort and disorientation, one motivation behind regaining bodily “control” was the fear of not knowing when menstruation would begin. Not knowing left me in a state of being unprepared and without my usual paraphernalia to conceal my menstruation. 
Troubling SubjectivityOnce I had removed my menstrual cycle tracking app, I lost the ability to track and predict my hormonal changes over chronological time. This prevented me from validating the influence of my menstrual cycle on how I experienced the world. 

Losing the ability to explain my subjective experience through my app was particularly distressing for me during the first month after removal. In my field notes from this time, I wrote “I started doubting decisions I had made; am I feeling like this because I just moved in with my partner?... I asked my partner to check where I was in my cycle but not to tell me. I wanted him to know that this (PMS) wasn’t the real me, but just my hormones… but I felt as if he had some power over me. It felt unfair that he could understand my behavior when I couldn’t.” Over the following year and a half, however, I started describing taking a “less diagnostic, and more holistic approach,” to the question of whether or not my emotional experience was influenced by my hormones. My “holistic” view allowed me to understand that my subjective experience of the world was influenced by changing hormones, but that I would never really know what their influence was, and so was less keen to find a diagnosis.

At the end of the 18 months, I returned to Clue. As I scrolled back through the data from the three years I did use it previously, I was surprised to find out just how irregular my cycles had been. I had never checked this information while using Clue. What I had taken to be accurate information and used as a guide to predict when my menstruation would begin was revealed as being built upon much more erratic data than I had expected.
Our Bodies are Never “Off The Grid”In her book Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz firstly shows how, throughout history, philosophers’ conception of the “natural” and “universal” body has actually always been the male body (Grosz, 1994). She states that this has led to the erasure of the body and ignorance around how the specifics and differences between our bodies shapes our subjectivity. To rectify this, Grosz contributes the theory of embodied subjectivity. Grosz describes how our experience of the world is a result of 1. the specificities of the biological body as an object, e.g. sex, race, dis/ability, and 2. the body as living subject, with social interactions and societal and cultural aspects shaping the subject’s sense of self. Grosz describes this relationship between the body as subject and the body as object as being like a möbius strip. Grosz states that a neutral, natural, a-historical or pre-cultural body does not exist. Grosz’s möbius strip model describes the reality of our body as an entanglement of our flesh, bone, muscle, and blood with the cultures and societies we are situated within. 

My experience of removing Clue illustrates how using menstrual cycle tracking technologies fundamentally and ever-lastingly changed how I experience my body. My möbius strip of embodied subjectivity was shaped both by my particular body, but also by the  Clue app. For example, my notes reveal how Clue provided me with a sense of control over my body that is shaped by cultural ideals. The fact that I felt uncomfortable when left only with my bodily experience to “diagnose” my menstrual state communicates that bodily knowledge is less desirable than objective knowledge. More literally, my experience also relates to societal norms about the menstruating and hormonally fluctuating body. For example, knowing when menstruation will occur to avoid “accidents” where my menstrual blood would be made public, and using an app to validate my emotions during PMS and excuse my behavior to my partner. 

I propose that once we adopt technologies and envelop them into our entangled networks of objects and other subjects that comprise our sense of self, we can never be untouched by them. The phrase “off the grid” communicates turning our backs and leaving the technological world behind. My experience removing Clue perhaps shows that this might not be as binary as we once thought. We will always be shaped by the technologies we once used.