Disciplining the Akratic user: Constructing digital (un)wellness

AHP readers may be interested in a new piece in Mobile Media & Communication: “Disciplining the Akratic user: Constructing digital (un)wellness,” by Chad J. Valasek. Abstract:

Contemporary discourse around digital well-being tends to focus on self-control when it comes to “addicting” social media apps and digital devices. By acting on behalf of users, designers and engineers promote various self-regulating products and services in order for users to “fix” the distractible brains of typical users. This paper explores the role of the history of psychology on user-experience thinking and engineering and provides a critical genealogy of digital well-being discourse and persuasive technology. In particular, I expand on the role of dual-process models in human–computer interaction and health behavior change from the 1980s to today. By exploring the social construction of the distracted, impulsive, “primitive” animal brain (system 1), I find that it is this part of the mind that the engineer wishes to “treat,” via app design. In order to tame this “primitive” brain, researchers and engineers have turned to behavioral science, hoping to better structure user options and encourage users to manage their own time and normalize screen habits. I argue that normality discourses like this are founded upon ideas of time management and delay of gratification, whereas abnormality is tied to ideas of immediate gratification and time wasting. This dichotomy is not simply to enforce social norms around time wasting, but reinforces social and econoimc inequities. Therefore, unlike some other approaches to digital well-being, I urge future scholarship on the subject to examine the taken-for-granted social-cultural context, which will lead not only to a more politically nuanced understanding of the subject but may also lead to further discussions over how digital well-being could be conceived otherwise.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.