Calculating Therapeutic Compliance

An Ethnographic Account of Numerical Inference and Interference in Mobile Health Care

  • Martina Klausner Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


This article discusses calculation practices in the development of a monitoring device, aimed at improving therapeutic compliance of children and teenagers suffering from a deformation of the spine. In managing the complexities of physical parameters, therapeutic measures and interventions in every day life, numbers are central participants in inferring from and interfering into bodies and behaviours. Numbers are input and output of such monitoring systems, translating, circulating and visualizing body conditions, therapeutic effects and suggesting action. At the core of this generative process of capturing and interpreting data are algorithms as common participants of managing the complexities of vast amounts of data and providing the basis for interference in people’s lives. They process data and provide seemingly unambiguous numerical outcome, based on mathematical-technological processing of information. Attending to the incremental process of “learning algorithms” as central part of the system’s development allows me to describe the robustness of certain modes of inference. Beyond using the specific case as an exemplary for computer-based numerical inference and interference, the article is an attempt to probe and complement two theoretical approaches to the numerical management of complexity: Helen Verran’s focus on numbers’ performative properties and the potential tensions arising from divergent numerical orderings; and Paul Kockelman’s sieving of inferential and indexical chains along the generation of meaning and ontological transformativities.