Posted by <Noah Allaire> on 2021-04-19
On June 4th, 2018, Apple introduced a set of digital wellness tools on iOS. For the first time, Apple granted users access to information about how much time they spend on their phones and allowed them to set specific limits on app usage and notifications.
Competitors including Google released similar tools around the same time. These were significant and strategic shifts for companies that profit directly from attention capture. It signaled a general pathologization of individual digital behavior based on a new understanding that most bodies are digitally unwell. Like many other well-intentioned technology product innovations, the tools work better for the companies than the users.
Digital wellness has turned into a way for technology companies to avoid taking responsibility for the compulsive behaviors that their products promote. A whole tech cottage industry has developed around it. In an all too familiar trick, institutions of power and control pass responsibility for becoming well to individuals while assuming a guise of transparency and care.
In truth, digital wellness tools are an opportunistic inversion of digital marketing tools that track impressions and engagement. It is telling that digital marketing tools preceded digital wellness tools by many years. Higher numbers are healthy for your brand but unhealthy for your body. As Bergman (2019) points out:
Digital wellness campaigns promote an aspirational notion of purity, positing it as a feeling one can achieve through a few easy steps, while ignoring the class- and race-based constructions of what is considered “pure” in the first place.
This situation refracts the perverse incentives structuring digital experiences through the standardizing influence of digital technologies and the corporations that produce them. Despite objectivist quantification efforts, the digitalization of social and aesthetic experience is not well understood.
I am interested in showing how unconscious subjective associations affect the very basis of empirical and scientific knowledge (Bachelard 1968: 10). Among the many metabolic metaphors for digital health, exposure to digital content is consumption stands out as a fundamental way of understanding what bodies do online; we consume.
Embodied experiences of consumption, primarily eating and addictive substance use, metaphorically structure interactions with digital content. We browse for content that suits our taste on the feed of social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, or we binge on streaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify. To adequately address digital (un)wellness, it is necessary to explore this metaphor.
Hunger and Browsing
Following Spinoza’s presentation of the body as knowledge, Deleuze (1988: 18) argues that “an action in the mind is necessarily an action in the body as well, and what is a passion in the body is necessarily a passion in the mind.”
In this embodied framework, we have much less control than we might believe over what happens in our body-minds. Experiences like fear, joy, pain, and hunger are the result of encounters and relations formed with other bodies (human or otherwise) rather than being internally produced by instinct.
This perspective directly challenges the typical biological theory of instinct, which holds that hunger must be primary (i.e., instinctual) because it is difficult to suppress. Rather than a built-in hunger instinct causing the body to desire food and eat, particular food may give off an appetizing affect, inviting the body to form a relation with it, thereby stimulating hunger. Since relations are separate from their terms, hunger can be produced even when food is not immediately present, as relations may be established with memories or images.
In Kafka’s short story, A Hunger Artist, a man achieves fame by fasting before eventually starving to death in obscurity. He lives and dies in a cage to prove to his audience that he does not eat. Throughout the story, the artist struggles with his audience’s misinterpretation of his performance. He does not, as everyone assumes, exert some superhuman control over an instinctual hunger. Instead, he is simply unaffected by food: “I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I would have made no fuss and stuffed myself.”
A theory of affects, bodies, and relations provides a general model of consumption where appetite is the effort by which each thing strives to persevere in its being. The hunger artist does not suppress his appetite, nor does he betray his body by eating any food that does not affect him.
His is a self-destructive subjectivity where the appetite for hunger displaces the appetite for food. His body, like the anorexic’s, is incapable of forming a productive relation with food but he is also “delivered from all his automatic reactions” (Artaud 1988: 577) in a way that restores his true freedom. Buchanan (1997: 78) explains:
Anorexia, then, is in fact an attempt to liberate the body from an insupportable burden of automatic relations…the desire for food which is an extensive relation between the body and food, is involuted into a desire for the desire for food; the affect food has is suddenly desired for itself, in itself. Meanwhile, food, the actual origin of this particular affect, is subject to profound disgust.
I would like to suggest that this understanding of anorexia provides a good model for the browsing pattern of digital content consumption. Since we understand and describe exposure to digital content in terms of eating, we can analyze digital unwellness in terms of disordered eating.
In anorexic browsing, the desire for engaging content is involuted into a desire for the desire for engaging content. This is not unlike going to a store with nothing particular in mind to buy. When I pick up my phone for the 54th time today, it’s less ‘I want to look at Instagram’ and more ‘I want to want to look at Instagram.’ Like the hunger artist, we waste away resigned to the mediocre, un-affective quality of digital content, our appetite operating at a higher level than the content we encounter.
It may be that digital content seems increasingly mediocre because our desire or appetite is not organized at the appropriate level. Observant content producers recognize this general condition as a profitable opportunity to create or simply generate more and more bland content that relieves the consumer of any need for a refined sense of taste. Because we want a reason to be online more than any of the content we find there, even if a rare piece of content engages our sense of taste, we often fail to fully internalize (i.e., swallow) it.
Taste and internalization, the two phases of eating, are the burdensome automatic relations we unconsciously wish to liberate ourselves from by browsing anorexically. Such is the often celebrated democratization of content accessibility and production. Still, the focus on content-in-itself is misguided because our anorexic appetite organizes our desire at a higher level. Our true freedom is restored socially, beyond digital taste and internalization. Our appetite is satiated only through the formation of relations with other bodies, not with the digital content they might produce.
It’s also easy and common to understand the compulsive way we interact with digital content in terms of addiction. We call digital content consumers ‘users’ so frequently that the word’s polysemy usually registers only subconsciously.
The idea that people can become addicted to behaviors like gambling, sex, shopping, and using the Internet and substances like alcohol and drugs significantly complicates current biomedical, social, and psychological theories of addiction (Oksanen 2013: 57). Even Deleuze and Guattari (1988) focus on the chemical composition of addictive substances and neglect the full situational contexts of substance use. They incorrectly conclude that the substance-using-body is incapable of any lines of flight (i.e., becomings) apart from downward spirals out of which no desire can flow.
To resolve this incoherence, we desperately need a theory of addiction that demonstrates how addictive desires are organized towards situational assemblages rather than provoked by particular substances. (See footnotes.) Addiction, under such a theory, is processual rather than stative. The fixed notion of ‘the user’ is replaced by the ephemeral notion of the substance-using-body-in-context. (See footnotes.)
Here, addictiveness is a tendency or potential not tied to any particular substance or body. Klein (1993: 16) describes a potentially addictive situational assemblage in which the ritual, rather than the substance alone, allows desire to flow, temporarily destratifying the body:
The moment of taking a cigarette allows one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience, a space and a time of heightened attention…evoked through the ritual of fire, smoke, cinder connecting to hand, lungs, breath, and mouth. It procures a little rush of infinity that alters perspectives, however slightly, and permits, albeit briefly, an ecstatic standing outside of oneself.
One can see how digital content consumption rituals fit better into a situational theory of addiction, not only because digital content has no substance in the traditional sense. Like Klein’s cigarette break, moments of digital content consumption can rupture ordinary experience’s temporal continuity, create states of heightened attention, alter perspectives, and may permit a brief experience of standing outside oneself.
Indeed, the deft gestures we use to unlock our phones, open our apps, and react to or ignore content become cognitively and physically routinized just like those of the becoming-smoker or the becoming-alcoholic in their potentially addictive situational contexts. Still, it is important to critically engage with the impulse to pathologize our content consumption rituals. Consuming (and especially creating (See footnotes)) digital content can allow us to form relations with other bodies and change how the bodies-in-relation compose themselves.
Malins (2004: 100) shows how the knowledge-bases of public health, medicine, law, and morality ignore the force of bodily relations in order to
support the production of subjects who understand and identify themselves in relation to the terms of these knowledges - terms such as ‘smoker,’ ‘addict,’ ‘criminal,’ ‘diseased,’ ‘infective,’ ‘risky,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘dangerous,’ and terms which are constructed as false dichotomies: either you are a smoker or you’re not; either you are dirty and diseased or you are clean; either you are a risk to yourself and society or you’re not. Dichotomies that create the illusion of unified singular subjectivity, and promote a form of self-regulation that abolishes multiplicities and variation…these discursive dichotomies also operate to make bodies guilty in advance; forcing them to constantly work to prove themselves; to manoeuvre themselves into the privileged branch of each binary.
Digital wellness tools and discourse show that the digital technology industry must be considered alongside those older knowledge-bases that structure and standardize our understandings of ourselves and our bodily practices.
Ultimately, it is misguided to dismiss the relation-forming potential of creating and consuming digital content. Here, I reevaluate this potential as digital content’s true and only ethical use. Our anorexic browsing patterns and the situational assemblage view of addiction-potential show that it’s not really about the content/food/substance anyway; it’s about forming relations with other ‘users.’ Bodies use substances in the first place because the substances are connected to situations and interactions that enable the production of desire.
A Deleuzian embodied ethics holds that unethical assemblages reduce a body’s potentials, limiting flows of desire. In contrast, ethical assemblages increase a body’s power to form new relations and produce new desiring-flows. In this framework, digital content, food, sex, gambling, alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs are not inherently good or bad. This understanding is much closer to what we can gather from lived experience than what discourses of health (digital or otherwise), law, technology, and morality enforce.
Digital content, food, or drug consumption becomes unethical when it becomes harmful to the body. It becomes harmful to the body when it completely structures the body’s desire; when it decreases the body’s capacity to be affected by anything else. Having something else to desire allows us to cope with our addiction-potential. It leaves us with a more hopeful, open future.
Since we all live in an increasingly virtualized world of digital content, I suggest that we reject the moralizing discourse of corporate digital wellness and accept digital content’s ability to help us form new relations with one another. These are relations through which we might express new desires and engage in transformative becomings.
In this spirit, please do not hesitate to reach out to me if you want to discuss any of the ideas presented in this essay. I hope that you found it nutritive.
Editors note: This post originally appeared on Noah's Substack back in February '21. You can read more at https://virtuesignal.substack.com.
Artaud, A. (1988). Selected Writings. University of California Press.
Bachelard, G. (1964). The psychoanalysis of fire (Vol. 277). Beacon Press.
Bergman, R. (2019). Digital Hygiene: Dietary metaphors for internet use blame individuals for systemic hazards. Real Life Magazine. https://reallifemag.com/digital-hygiene/
Buchanan, I. (1997). The problem of the body in Deleuze and Guattari, or, what can a body do?. Body & Society, 3(3), 73-91.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. The Athlone Press.
Deleuze, G. (1988). Spinoza: practical philosophy. City Lights Books.
Kafka, F. (1983). The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Penguin Press.
Klein, R. (1993). Cigarettes are sublime. Duke University Press.
Malins, P. (2004). Machinic assemblages: Deleuze, Guattari and an ethico-aesthetics of drug use. Janus head, 7(1), 84-104.
Massumi, B. (1992). A user's guide to capitalism and schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. MIT press.
Oksanen, A. (2013). Deleuze and the theory of addiction. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 45(1), 57-67.
Potts, A. (2004). Deleuze on Viagra (or, what can a ‘Viagra-body’ do?). Body & Society, 10(1), 17-36.
1. Potts (2004) provides an interesting example of how research under such a theory might work by examining the addictive desire for drugs like Viagra and analyzing the various power-affect-subject relations at play in the medicalization of sexuality.
2. This theory would supplement the imposed categories of the social world and their hierarchical binary presuppositions (e.g., human/animal, man/woman, healthy/unhealthy, straight/gay, sober/addicted) with an understanding that:
No real body ever entirely coincides with either category. A body only approaches its assigned category as a limit: it becomes more or less “feminine” or more or less “masculine” depending on the degree to which it conforms to the connections and trajectories laid out for it by society. (Massumi 1992: 86)
3. Here, I have addressed the consumptive rather than the productive or creative relation to digital content. Intuitively, producing or creating content seems healthier or more ethical than a purely consumptive relation. I leave this topic for further research.