The fragmentation of (digital) well-being

The potential well-being costs of the pandemic are many and harsh. Financial well-being is said to be at risk due to shrinking employment opportunities; physical well-being due to stay-at-home orders; social well-being due to limited interactions with loved ones; digital well-being due to increased reliance on remote communication. The list goes on. Dividing up the various layers of well-being in this way is useful for analytical purposes. Chiefly, it grants a specificity crucial for the study of flourishing and for the treatment of suffering. Yet well-being is more than the sum of its parts.

Well-being is a normative concept. Determining what counts as living well, and for whom, positions individuals within a matrix of cultural evaluation tied to a particular time and place. Well-being is also fundamentally relational, situated, and unevenly experienced. It involves complex bio-psychological mechanisms interacting with the lived environment[1]. The process of atomising well-being into discrete categories thus obscures as well as reveals.

Historian Klaus Bergoldt shows how Western visions of well-being as good personal hygiene, routine, and self-control can be traced back to the Greco-Roman idea of dietetics – the art of balanced living[2]. Enjoy exercise, but not to the point of exhaustion; thought – but not to idleness; and sexual pleasure – but in moderation. For the Greeks and Romans, such doctrines of living well were the reserve of the intellectual and political elite – the suggestion being that those with labour intensive workloads did not have the time to worry about, or, indeed, capacity to control their passions.

While current accounts of living well purport to be for all, well-being inescapably remains value-laden and locally interpretable.[3] What, then, of the contemporary fragmentation of well-being? What worldviews are revealed by splitting well-being into separate categories? Let us consider one of the more recent shards – digital well-being.

Technical self-control

We are frequently faced with the need to manage our screen time, control our interactions with social media, and take technological time-outs for the sake of our own health. “Too much” technology, we are warned, leads to several negative psychological consequences. Unproductive distraction sits at on one end of the scale, serious mental health issues, such as increased propensities toward anxiety, depression, and self-harm, at the other.

After widespread public criticisms, and after many years of inaction, technology companies now provide digital well-being ‘tools’ built into their products as standard. Activity trackers can measure time spent on smartphones, social media users can mute push notifications, and technical controls can disable applications for set periods of time. NGOs and charities offer practical guidelines for parents and children to live well in digital spaces, governmental advisors offer digital well-being practices for citizens, and a burgeoning self-help literature promises readers the chance to wrest back control of their digital health through subtle changes in lifestyle[4].

Collectively, the advice surrounding digital well-being, whether expressed in corporate PR materials, community guidelines, governmental white papers, or on user dashboards, functions as part of a technically embedded discourse of self-control. Despite harbouring different motivations for cultivating “healthier” engagements with technology (some more critical than others), what users can and should do to protect personal digital well-being is clearly spelled out. Rather than engage passively with technology, users should be conscious, productive, and involved. Be more mindful, be less reactive.

However, in positioning individual user habits as the key target of change, current discourses surrounding digital well-being position individual users as the key target of critique. Accordingly, relative experiences of well-being in digital contexts become explicable in terms of personal success or failure. The “healthy” user understands these normative well-being guidelines and acts appropriately. The “unhealthy” one does not.

Well-being as a political pressure point

The burdening of individual users functions as part of an apparatus of neoliberal responsibilization. Here, individuals (as opposed to families, communities, or the state) assume full responsibility for self-care.[5] Well-being, the argument goes, is an outcome of individual agents making good choices in an equal field of social opportunity.

Yet this is an empty promise. Feelings of well-being are not solely attributable to “good” decision-making. For example, scholars have linked the rising and disparate rates of mental health issues in the West to rising economic inequalities, entrenched racial discrimination, and issues surrounding gender and class[6]. Furthermore, researchers working with the social determinants of health framework have highlighted how structural factors, such as access to public services, employment, and housing, impact subjective experiences of well-being.

What is important to recognize here is that compartmentalizing well-being as an individual accomplishment, or failure, makes it very difficult to consider these social, political, and economic inequalities as part of a holistic set of health relations. As a consequence of adopting an individualized view of well-being, the imperative to ameliorate such inequalities in our proposed treatments of human anguish is lost.

Although useful for analytical specificity, atomising well-being in this way is therefore also a missed political opportunity. In the case of digital well-being in particular, it becomes increasingly hard to link the uneven well-being costs of digital (dis)connection to the uneven psychic costs of the so-called attention economy and the related systemic failures of neoliberal capitalism. Who is it serving to distinguish between health “online” and health “offline” so rigidly? What becomes visible? What goes unchecked?

Ultimately, where one locates the correlates of well-being determines appropriate modes of intervention. If we are to better understand how technological mediation implicates diverse experiences of human flourishing and suffering, it could be worth situating the “digital” aspects of well-being more concretely within its relational, deeply political, historical whole.

[1] ‌Atkinson, S., Bagnall, A.-M., Corcoran, R., South, J., & Curtis, S. (2020). Being Well Together: Individual Subjective and Community Wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21, 1903–1921; Rose, N., Birk, R., & Manning, N. (2021). Towards Neuroecosociality: Mental Health in Adversity. Theory, Culture & Society.

[2] Bergoldt, K. (2008). Well-being: A Cultural History of Healthy Living. Cambridge: Polity

[3] What one does with this interpretation is a critical (political) decision. I like Foucault’s commitment to “effective history” and the “cutting” of knowledge: “Effective history deprives the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature, and it will not permit itself to be transported by a voiceless obstinacy toward a millennial ending. It will uproot its traditional foundations and relentlessly disrupt its pretended continuity. This is because knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting’. Foucault, M. (1984). ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in: Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 154.

[4] Eyal, N. (2020). Indistractable. London: Bloomsbury.

[5] Brown, W. (2005). Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Sointu, E. (2005). The Rise of an Ideal: Tracing Changing Discourses of Wellbeing. The Sociological Review, 53(2), 255–274.

[6] Brown, B. J. & Baker, S. (2013). Responsible Citizens: Individuals, Health and Policy under Neoliberalism. London: Anthem Press; Fisher, M. (2019). A theory of public well-being. BMC Public Health, 19(1283); Yearby, R. (2020). Structural Racism and Health Disparities:  Reconfiguring the Social Determinants of Health Framework to Include the Root Cause. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 48(3),518-526.