The Perfect User

Digital wellness movements insist there is a single way to “stay human”

On June 9, former Google designer turned tech critic Tristan Harris tweeted: “We need a new field of ‘Society & Technology Interaction’ (or STX).” This “new field,” he wrote, would research ways to realign technology so that it worked in the best interests of humanity. But as some academics and social scientists were swift to point out, it is not as if such critical approaches don’t already exist. They responded to Harris’s tweet by noting his apparent ignorance of entire swathes of academic research, including science and technology studies (STS), internet and platform studies, and other various subfields within the social sciences and humanities that have been critiquing design and technological practices for decades. Some replies accused Harris of “Columbizing,” claiming to discover a territory that already exists.

More than merely an amusing Twitter roasting, however, this episode marks a key moment in the emerging discourse of “tech humanism,” which, as Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel explain in this essay for the Guardian, is the belief that technology “damages our psychological well-being and conditions us to behave in ways that diminish our humanity.” In other words, technology in their view now compromises the quintessentially human capacity for individual decision making.

The “human” is not a self-evident category

Harris’s tweet was part of a wider discussion among advocates for “humane technology” such as Aza Raskin and Aviv Oyadya, who argue that user-experience (UX) design — the practice of tailoring a product to users’ anticipated behavioral responses, with the aim of making it easy or compelling to use — has led to a general “downgrade” of humanity, evidenced by digital addiction, increased superficiality, and an overall decline of mental health and political and media discourse. A critical approach to UX, they say, would help shed light on its negative effects. Harris’s Center of Humane Technology seems to have been launched with that aim in mind. But as Maya Ganesh, Lilly Irani and Rumman Chowdhury, and others have noted, the idea of humane technology is at best a technical critique of UX design practices and culture that repositions Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, designers, and programmers as the ideal reformers of humanity.

The tech-humanist movement raises important questions about how UX design configures human beings as “users” according to the culture and ideology of the tech sector. This echoes the work of STS scholars like Benjamin Bratton, Tung-Hui Hu, Orit Halpern, and Wendy Chun, who have made similar points. But tech humanism appears to take for granted the fundamental unit that motivates its critique: the “human” subject. For Harris and company, the human subject appears to be a transparent, knowable, monadic unit of being, more or less consistent with the humanist subject of the Enlightenment. They treat what a “human” is and does as self-evident, overlooking the ways that the category of the human has been used to dehumanize certain people and groups who fall outside their limited definition (i.e. women, people of color, non-able bodies, etc.). The “human” is not a self-evident category at all but rather a political and ideological tool that has long been used to maintain existing hierarchies, excluding some people to the benefit of others.

The arch response Harris received to his STX tweet might be read as part of ongoing debates, in STS and elsewhere, regarding who gets to define the “human,” as well as who gets to be considered most fully human in our current techno-social predicament. Our concern is that tech humanism not only underestimates what it takes to comprehend the category of “the human” but that its attempts to reform “humanity” may reinstate humanism’s old hierarchies of power and control.

Traditional humanism defined the “human” as a rational, sovereign agent. In Rosi Braidotti’s estimation, this means “the classical ideal of ‘Man,’ formulated first by Protagoras as ‘the measure of all things,’ later renewed in the Italian Renaissance as a universal model and represented in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.” Cary Wolfe has explained this idea of the “human” as “the Cartesian subject of the cogito, the Kantian ‘community of reasonable beings,’ or, in more sociological terms, the subject as citizen, rights-holder, property-owner, and so on.” This Enlightenment notion of the human continues to enjoy widespread consensus, carrying with it a reassuring familiarity and appearing as common sense. An attachment to this notion of the human is often asserted as if it were a matter of fact, a given — so much so that, as Braidotti points out, we construct a fundamental notion of rights around it.

It is no coincidence that websites promoting disconnection tools and events often feature striking images of untouched mountains

Though this definition of “human” is often taken and natural and self-evident, it has also been subject to critique. The anti-humanist movements of postwar Europe (associated with figures such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan) and the more recent posthuman movement (associated with Rosi Braidotti, Cary Wolfe, Francesca Ferrando, among others) have systematically critiqued this humanist figure for its partiality. As Braidotti summarizes:

Universal “Man,” in fact, is implicitly assumed to be masculine, white, urbanized, speaking a standard language, heterosexually inscribed in a reproductive unit and a full citizen of a recognized polity. How nonrepresentative can you get?

The concept is also critiqued for putting forward the notion of man as the hegemonic and rightfully dominant species.

Tech humanism, in foregrounding the need to preserve “the human,” is in danger of reviving the old humanist approach, only its definition of Universal Man is framed around the ideal user implicit in the protocols of UX design. Humanism’s “unshakable certainty [in] the almost boundless capacity of humans to pursue their individual and collective perfectibility” (as Rosi Braidotti puts it in The Posthuman) is finding new form in the Perfect User: a thoroughly designed, homogenous subject position that one may momentarily step into by engaging in digital healthism and digital well-being practices. Its proximate roots are in Californian wellness culture (described here by Daniela Blei), which attempts to align intentional technology use with self-mastery. Today’s aspirational subject can engage in activities such as intentional eating, intentional house design, and intentional human speaking. And, of course, intentional phone use.

Drawing from wellness culture, tech humanism adopts as one of its central tenets the perfectibility of the subject, pursuable through such activities as mindfulness, digital minimalism, productivity, self-discipline, and intentionality. Inherent in the movement is the elitist assumption that everyone has the time and means to be unconnected. For the Perfect User, retreating from the digital world means attending custom-designed events and festivals, like the Go Brick Phone-Free Getaway and, of course, Burning Man, where being screen-free will have only positive consequences. It is no coincidence that websites promoting disconnection tools and events often feature striking images of untouched mountains, because the Perfect User has the ability to travel in pursuit of self-improvement.

There is also a fundamental assumption that users have, or should have, a dominant, guiding and aspirational intention in ideological alignment with the Center for Humane Technology’s Humane Design Guide. Central to the center’s ideology is the humanist belief that individuals should act in concert with their own intentions. Accordingly, UX design practices can and should enhance the human condition by aligning design to human intention. As part of this determinist, the CHT website (under a header of Take Control) offers tips on, for example, how to temper one’s phone habit, with links to recommended mindfulness or time-management apps like Calm and Moment. These tips reinforce an approach to technology founded in what Adam Fish calls “digital healthism,” which positions the individual as responsible for their digital consumption.

But for tech humanism, the same potent persuasive technology design that is pitched here as the solution was also the source of the problem, fomenting unintentional or unconscious phone use through its irresistible snares. The movement’s ostensible mission is to maintain and protect individual sovereignty and restore intentionality, yet it relies on the same sort of assumption about the conditioning powers of UX design to achieve it.

Tech humanism insists that one be a user to be recognized as human. The fantasy-structure of intentionality encourages an aspirational form of digital consumption

Exactly how does UX design configure the Perfect User? And whose interests does this user serve? Among the apps meant to rescue users from distraction is Siempo, which tries to restore intentionality by redrawing the phone interface and reorganizing the app inventory to make “distracting” features less accessible. During its onboarding process, the app asks, “What’s your intention?” which it then reminds users of every time they unlock their phone or swipe to additional screens. Constantly reminding the user of their intention nudges the user to self-manage their digital consumption and aspire to a healthier, more productive, or otherwise self-optimal modes of living. With Siempo installed, the phone becomes akin to Foucault’s “body-tool,” demanding of the user continuous, intentional behavior. The phone as body-tool prompts the user to engage in self-surveillance and self-discipline, subjugating themselves to the modes of use that have been designed into the app.

Another tool, the Intent Launcher of the Add Intent suite, further reveals the kinds of activities the Perfect User is encouraged to strive for. Although the app’s purpose is presented relatively neutrally as “developing tools that put you back in control,” the overall design promotes a specific lifestyle ideology. Its design is text-only, to counteract “flashy icons trying to get your attention.” It suggests that users organize their phone apps into “Essentials” (it lists Amazon Kindle, Camera, Inbox, Messages, Phone, Slack, and Spotify) and “Distractions” (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube). These lists seem to discourage apps where the user engages more directly with others and with the outside world, and encourage as potentially “enriching” activities like reading and listening to music.

Regardless of how worthy their causes may be, both these apps require the user to enter into a thoroughly designed user-position — the Perfect User — to even be recognized as a subject by the socio-technical apparatus. One cannot function as a user without conforming to the modes of use that have been designed into the system. Put differently, apps like Siempo and Add Intent are actively involved in producing the kind of subject with which they claim to interact. The user of these systems remains a docile subject to be brought under control and disciplined, but the fantasy-structure of intentionality masks the ideological functioning of the apps, not to mention the broader structures of wellness capitalism itself, by encouraging an aspirational form of digital consumption. Tech humanism more or less insists that one be a user to be recognized as human. This move keeps us tethered to classic humanist structures of categorization, whereby some users are considered better than others.

The Perfect User may appear to be a self-evidently superior form of subjectivity well-suited to the pressures of our techno-social age, but that should not blind us to the relational politics and ideological entanglements that lie behind it. Though it seems rooted in wellness and empowerment, it implicitly retains the hierarchies and exclusions of enlightenment humanism by assuming the nature of the “human” subject it requires.

Although the humane tech movement’s attempts to reconfigure a “better” user-subject may be well-intentioned, we also need to acknowledge the political and ideological assumptions underpinning it. This may help to avoid a situation in which a relatively small group of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, developers, and designers are reforming humanity according to a privileged set of values and ideals.

Cherie Lacey is a lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research explores the ways in which the design of ‘smart’ technologies mediates relationships. Situated within the field of Science and Technology Studies, Cherie has published in the areas of data privacy and ethics, dark patterns, digital wellbeing, and user subjectivity.

Catherine Caudwell is a lecturer in User Experience Design at the School of Design, Victoria University of Wellington. Catherine’s research takes a qualitative and interdisciplinary approach to exploring how relationships with emerging technologies are created, reinforced, and reimagined through the nexus of design, marketing, media, and public adoption.

Alex Beattie is a writer and PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington and is researching ways in which people disconnect from the internet.