In July 2018, I ran a workshop called What Is Your Utopia at SpaceUs Roslindale, an MIT DesignX project that turned empty shopfronts into artist studios. The goal was to not only to demonstrate how utopian thinking can help us imagine new ways to address problems but also to show how anyone’s vision of an ideal world would inevitably impose their personal values as universals. Though the participants’ utopias were wide-ranging — from a completely pastoral society to a high-tech urbanized world to a libertarian commune — they came to see how they would quickly fall apart over such questions as “Who rules in your utopia, and how are they selected?” and “Does the society in your utopia hinge on equality, or is it something else?” A universalized mode of living and being almost always leaves someone out, always producing “losers.”
This lesson applies equally to the form of utopian thinking that is perhaps most prevalent today: digital utopianism. It is premised on the belief that technology-oriented solutions — whether it’s “smart” cities, or autonomous-vehicle systems, or drone-delivery schemes, or “connecting the world” — can fulfill a utopian ideal and provide uniform benefits for everyone. Popular science writers and technologists often deploy implicitly utopian thinking to promote their ideas, as if it were a deus ex machina to remove technologies from the sociopolitical context in which they are used.
The digital-wellness movement deems those with sufficient self-mastery more human than the phone zombies who succumb to tech’s predations
The digital-wellness movement, though it seems to counter the grandiose schemes of the tech industry, shares a similar aspiration of fixing people for their own good, prescribing a specific one-size-fits all relationship with technology as a way to build an ideal society. This movement is typified by former Google employee Tristan Harris’s Center for Humane Technology, books like Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and Catharine Price’s How to Break Up With Your Phone, and software such as the Before Launcher and Google’s new suite of experiments aimed at “balancing life and tech,” including a counter that tells you how many times you’ve unlocked your phone in a day.
What these interventions all have in common is how they frame our problems with technology as a matter between the individual and a specific device or app rather than the social, moral, and infrastructural relations that ultimately bind them together. They posit that apps in and of themselves compel our attention irresistibly through “dark patterns” of malevolent design, as if other people were not intrinsically involved in what we generally use phones to do. For example, in a Vox article, Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary claims that “if tech execs really wanted to help people with smartphone dependence, they would change their products to be inherently less addictive.”
In such accounts, technology is anthropomorphized and depicted as a separate entity with power and agency that comes at humans’ expense. Accordingly, digital wellness preaches the possibility of self-improvement through reclaiming our agency over devices. It holds that we can singlehandedly resist “technology” through individual, unilateral action once the secrets of manipulative design are explained to us. Rather than addressing the complexity of our relations with each other, institutions, social conditions, or anything else that communication technology plays into, digital wellness offers self-help as self-reliance while leaving the broader, underlying conditions unaddressed.
Newport’s digital minimalism, for instance, suggests spending time away from screens and devices, as well as “dumbing down” your phone by deleting social media, so that you can reduce screen time and “move on with the business of living your real-world life.” That may sound straightforward enough, but it takes for granted a clean separation of “worlds,” as though the demands of our lives don’t deeply involve digital communication and perpetual connectivity. Newport posits a utopia where you can live in the “real” world, with “real” relationships and a subservient technology that can “support — not subvert — your efforts to live well.” But what counts as “real”? And in an era when digital technology is used as means of employer control over employees, who has sufficient autonomy to insist on their own definition and refuse the subservience that’s mediated by phones, if not necessarily caused by them?
The digital-wellness movement associates what is “real” with what is “human,” positing a “perfect user,” as this earlier Real Life essay suggests, who engages in self-discipline and assumes responsibility for the nature of their entanglement with technology. Those with sufficient self-mastery to use technology appropriately are deemed more human than the phone zombies who succumb to tech’s predations. Media theorist Mark Poster predicted this sort of concern in his 2001 book What’s the Matter With the Internet?, where he suggests that information machines will “put into question humanity as an instrumental agent.” The digital-wellness movement tends to presume that the usefulness of technology comes at the expense of human capability, as if these were inherently zero-sum rather than potentially complementary. So it responds to the question of human agency by decontextualizing technology use and depicting it as being a matter of the individual’s unilateral will.
When digital technology is used as means of employer’s control, who has sufficient autonomy to insist on their own definition of it?
In protesting the functions that we’ve “offloaded” to devices, the digital-wellness movement evokes a utopia in which everyone experiences the same human-machine relation: Humans and technology are entirely separate, machines fundamentally rob humans of their agency, and humans reassert their humanity by claiming agency back. Though this sounds critical of tech-company overreach, it actually reflects the same underlying view it means to resist. Both tech companies and digital-wellness advocates posit an individual who can operate independent of society — a rational, free, and self-regulating subject. But where tech companies tend to claim their products liberate users from social entanglement, digital wellness suggests that users liberate themselves by rejecting those same products. Newport’s minimalist digital utopia and Zuckerberg’s all-enveloping digital utopia end up serving the same figure of the liberal humanist subject. In both cases, what differentiates the human from the nonhuman is the capability for agency.
But “human” has never had a truly universal definition. Feminist theorist Karen Barad, in Meeting the Universe Halfway, offers two different arguments for rejecting a universalist humanism: The first is the postmodernist claim that the human subject does not exist outside its entanglement in social practices. The second, informed by her training as a quantum physicist, points to how anthropocentric conceptual frameworks and measurement apparatuses posit a scientist who purportedly transcends the natural world and its nonhuman inhabitants.
Perhaps the strongest critique of humanism comes from postcolonial theory. Aimé Césaire notes in Discourse on Colonialism that not a single “defender of the human person” — from the preacher to the academic — showed any sign of outrage when colonialists tried to subjugate the world in the name of religion or for the “just demands of the human collectivity,” from which colonized people were excluded, simply categorized as savage beings in need of civilizing. The humanist underpinnings of the digital utopia — distinguishing who counts as a real person — draw on a perspective that is effectively colonialist.
Digital colonialism has new technologies merely replicating and strengthening existing power structures — which are already largely informed by colonialism. The concentration of much of the internet into the hands of a few tech companies have meant that digital surveillance and control have also been centralized. This has prompted some artists and academics to seek the decolonization of digital technology; Morehshin Allahyari’s 3D sculptures, for example, claims cultural works as a challenge to tech companies’ extractive practices.
The digital wellness utopia flattens all that into a single concern, reflecting the anxieties of one particular group
Just as technology’s impacts and benefits are unevenly distributed, on both an individual and a cultural level, so is the nature of the agency humans have over it. Some groups draw on privilege they have beyond online spaces to exert control within them, while others depend on online connection to a different degree because of the exclusions they experience. Consider what early internet communities provided for people who do not have the same chance to make kin IRL, the “geeks, freaks, and queers who embraced the internet as a savior,” as theorist danah boyd has pointed out. Such divergent experiences with technology break down the idea of a universal digital anxiety. The anxieties, fantasies, and possibilities technology evokes are contextual; they vary according to the power relations among individuals, groups, and institutions within a given circumstance, because of the multitude of power, privilege, race, and other sociocultural dynamics that exist in relation to these technologies. The digital wellness utopia flattens all that into a single concern, reflecting the anxieties of one particular group — the demographic that includes Silicon Valley technologists.
Poster suggests that the “sensible” approach to thinking about technology would be not to lament “the destruction of nature by the irresponsible deployment of machines or the loss of human reality into machines or even the cultural ‘misshaping’ of the human by its descent into the instrumental” but rather to consider the nature of the cyborg — what he calls the “humachine.” The figure of the cyborg has been a fantastically important tool in reimagining social and technical relations, from Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, Katherine Hayles’s use of cybernetic theory to build on posthumanism in How We Became Posthuman, to Yuk Hui’s proposition for cybernetics in the 21st century.
These theories all point to the idea that no natural “essence” differentiates humans from machines, and there is no need to establish humans and machines as strictly distinct. What this means is that there are many other possibilities to reconfigure these definitions that transcend physical boundaries.
As deeply rooted in liberal humanism as the separation of “human” and “machine” is, it has never been self-evident. Rather, it needs to be iteratively reinforced for its continued existence, just like any other ideology. Digital wellness is part of that reinforcement. As a totalizing worldview that manifests in material practices, this movement is complicit in the problems it seeks to resolve. In reinforcing the essential division between humans and their devices, along with the idealized sovereignty of the individual liberal humanist subject, the digital wellness movement amounts to just a different way of imposing the liberal humanist utopia.
Do we need to abandon concepts of individualistic freedom and agency to be able to live with technology? Not necessarily. But the digital wellness movement insists on a false separation of the “user” from other agents in the computing system: from code, hardware, the programmer, and from data. This leads to design choices that frame people as individual actors and service consumers, despite the amount of data and content that users produce and on which devices and apps depend. As AI philosopher Phil E. Agre argues in Computation and Human Experience, we should not simply “substitute new metaphors for old metaphors, but to employ the new metaphors with a reflexively critical awareness of the role that metaphors play in technical work.” What we need now is new ways of making and relating, from which different metaphors of technology will emerge.