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.

More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

The Social Dilemma has been causing a stir, somewhat ironically, on social media lately. While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions, its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.

Jim Dine, 1973, "No Title"
Jim Dine, 1973, “No Title”

This feature length documentary turns primarily to tech industry insiders, as well as a few computer scientists, economists, and social psychologists, to spell out the dangers, which appear to be many, of our current entwinement with social media platforms today.

Glitzy infographics correlate the advent of social media with increased anxiety, depression, and self-harm in US teenagers – supposedly because platforms so easily allow us to compare ourselves to one another online. Sliding scales represent how the algorithmic filtering of information on social media increases political polarization – by only presenting self-reinforcing information to users, so it goes, social media are damaging to rational deliberation. And, in a rather confusing turn, human actors personify the technological nudges of the social media user interfaces – showing how our actions, and our very thoughts, are shaped by persuasive computer design.

The Social Dilemma argues that social media platforms are designed to manipulate us, capturing our attention for their economic gain. The longer we interact with platforms, the more data we produce, the more accurate a prediction of our behaviours can be established. These user profiles can then be sold individually or as part of demographics to marketers and advertisers wishing to reach specific audiences online.

To guard against such dangers, the documentary implores viewers to “take back control” of their lives online. A little self-discipline in how we use social media can help – limit your time spent scrolling? Turn off your push-notifications? Perhaps don’t stalk your ex’s new life, zombie-like, right before bed? However, while such actions are a start, the film’s experts argue, full control can only be achieved through complete disconnection from social media altogether.

Notwithstanding the validity of the “evidence” the documentary mobilises to justify its claims, or its tendency to trust those in the tech industry to know how to mend what they themselves have wrought, The Social Dilemma actually reveals a bigger issue at the core of our relationship with social media – one that individual, behavioural changes alone won’t fix. In our debates surrounding the impacts, potentials and perceivable “dangers” of social media today, we continue to rely upon an out-dated and redundant “tool-view” of technology.

To anyone who has paid even the scantest notice of the news in recent years, the negative effects of social media and the attention economy– in personal, political, and social spheres, are easily grasped. But the way The Social Dilemma makes its case for “manipulation” is flawed, obscuring the real, and much more profound, stakes of our deal with social media today.

To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.

Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?

French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading.

Instead, Latour draws our attention to the way the gun, in translating a human desire for killing into action, materializes that desire in the world: “you are a different person with the gun in your hand”[1], and the gun, by being in your hand, is different than if it were left snuggly in its rack. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting, as an observably autonomous action, actually take place. It is impossible to neatly distinguish the primary agents of the scene. Responsibility of the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.

With this in mind, we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will. Our interactions on social media platforms, our likes, our shares, our comments, are not raw resources to be mined – they simply could not have occurred without their technical mediation. Neither are they mere expressions of our autonomy, or, conversely, manipulation: the user does not, and cannot, act alone.

Instead, with this idea of mediation, neither human individuals, nor the manipulative design of platforms, seductive they may be, can be the sole causes of the psychological and political harm of social media. Rather, it is the coming together of human users and user-interfaces, in specific historical settings, that co-produce the activity that occurs upon them. We, as users, as much as the technology itself, therefore, share responsibility for the issues that rage online today.

However, we are not responsible in the terms of control that the talking heads of The Social Dilemma argue for. This is certainly not to side-step the culpability of those (overwhelmingly white, male Californians) who own, design, and release social media technologies. Understanding who profits from social media, and the normative cultural worldviews they peddle, is crucial. Rather, in recognising the complexity of this “socio-technical” relationship – between designers, users, interfaces, and algorithms – we can move beyond the unhelpful binary of cause and effect. A move away from deterministic thinking would widen our view, to consider the problems raised in The Social Dilemma in a more nuanced way.

For example, rather than seeing the ostensible crisis in mental health faced by teenagers as caused by social media self-comparison, we can investigate how other socio-political factors –  gender, race, and class inequities for instance, material conditions, as well as actual governmental policy decisions, entangle with social media to contribute to our feelings of individual and collective wellbeing. As opposed to considering social media filter bubbles and echo chambers as causing political polarization (as if it were merely a matter of access to the right information), we can instead ask in what ways our fractured political climate actually reflects the systemic failures of neoliberal ideology, lasting institutional racism, and patriarchal nation-statehood.

If we are to pursue these more complex, more progressive, discussions, it is necessary to re-frame social media as something more than a mere “tool”. Rather than simply leave it to former tech industry insiders to spell out the ills of social media in documentaries like The Social Dilemma, we must engage with thinkers from a diverse range of backgrounds to look to the historical conditions of social media’s origins, while always questioning the economics and cultural politics of its global dissemination.  We must personally examine how our own thoughts and actions are subtly shaped by social media’s design, while taking time to listen to marginalized individuals and communities who are impacted the most by the violence produced through social media today. And by seeing technology as a relation, by sharing responsibility in this way, we lift the burden of fixing the problem from the individual user alone, and discard the moralizing discourses such a burden brings.

[1] Latour, B. (1994) On Technical Mediation Common Knowledge Fall Vol.3, no 2. Pp. 32-33