Do Algorithms Know Your Body Better Than You?

The diagnostic regime of targeted advertising has much to teach us about how we categorize and label disability

Amy Gaeta
OneZero
Published in
6 min readOct 28, 2019

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Credit: Franki Chamaki/Unsplash

EEarlier this year, a survey appeared on my Facebook feed: “We need your expert insight on mobility aids.” Intrigued, I clicked through and found myself being vetted for my preferred wheelchair style. A week later, my feed served up an advertisement for an extra loud alarm clock for people with hearing impairments, and was followed by ads for vision aid devices, postpartum depression support, and nutritional counseling.

I do identify as disabled, and I research disability studies as part of my work. So it makes sense that I might be targeted for disability-related products. But I don’t have any expert insight on wheelchairs or any other type of mobility aid because I’ve never used them. Ironically for a website that documents every event and relationship in my life, neither my body nor my mind corresponds to what these online advertisements have crudely judged me to be. Is the assumption that all people researching disability are disabled, and that all disabled people use a wheelchair?

I wasn’t offended; I’m actually attracted to the boldness of these algorithms that implicitly diagnose me and provide a “prescription” of sorts, in that they think the advertised product might help me. But whether I need the product or not, these algorithms generate the perception of a deficiency; there is something wrong with my body or mind that these products can fix. We can use this kind of “automated diagnosis” to expand the conversation on how our real selves, and the data versions of ourselves, inform one another. The way algorithms perceive us, and how they fail to perceive us accurately, tells us a lot about how we categorize disability and how our bodies are socially organized. And those barriers inhibit thinking about the varying needs of our bodies and minds in more profound and compassionate ways.

Advertisers’ use of algorithms perpetuate the same logic as these health and medical trends; our data speaks louder than us.

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Amy Gaeta
OneZero
Writer for

Academic. Poet. Disabled. Interested in disability and feminist approaches to tech. Always online.