TtW Panel Transcript + Slides

This is a transcript of my Theorizing the Web panel talk, “Abolish the User: Designing Against the End of History.” Read more about it or watch the video here!

  • Hi everyone, I’m super excited to be here, and really grateful to Theorizing the Web and the Museum of the Moving Image for all the work they’ve put in. It’s really cool to be able to share something like this today, and I can’t wait to hear what you all think of this stuff I’ve been working on. My talk today is called Abolish the User: Designing Against the End of History.
  • Now, with all that being said, let me just dive right in. In the broadest possible terms, what I’m interested in is the relationship between digital technology (particularly social platforms) on the one hand, and people on the other. And part of the way I want do is problematize both sides of that equation, both people and platforms.
  • One of the most useful ways I’ve found of doing this is by looking at platforms as sociotechnical systems.That is, the technical and the social influence each other in intricate ways to form something that we can still look at as a single, historically located entity. Facebook, for example, is more than just a website or a company. It’s also literally made out of the cultural and social histories brought to the table by all the people who are employed to build it, and all the people who use it. And, of course, Facebook as a sociotechnical system is also the new bits of culture that users produce together after they log on, which are in turn influenced by the technical affordances of the underlying hardware and software.
  • I’ve tried to illustrate this here with a picture of plants growing on a trellis. Imagine the vines and the wooden latticework as though they are mutually shaping each other, in ways that are influenced by their respective histories. I’m particularly interested in what Bernard Stiegler describes as the technics of how individuals themselves are shaped by the tools they use, in this case, social platforms.
  • Keeping this view in mind, let’s turn to the social platforms we actually have in real life.
  • I think this slide pretty much captures the way many of us view social platforms in 2020. They’re inescapable facts of life, and they also deeply suck. Both in the popular mind and in academia, a lot of this stems from concern over “the algorithm,” particularly insofar as it might be exacerbating political polarization or amplifying toxic or extremist elements. Other things we love to hate about platforms include invasive advertising and surveillance capitalism, clickbait and the attention economy, so-called fake news / Russian bots, and rampant racism and misogyny. 
  • I’m not disputing these things exist, or that platforms are deeply shaped from head to toe by things like nationalism and late-capitalist extraction. To the contrary, what I want to argue is that if we want to truly understand these problems, we have to look even deeper.
  • So this is a little bit of a detour, but what I want to get into is that those critiques of social media don’t go back far enough. I want to unpack one of the biggest unstated assumptions built into social platforms like Twitter and Facebook. And this is something that those platforms have in common with modern conceptions of the nation-state, and with market capitalism. Specifically, it’s the way they think about and operationalize what it means to be a person. 
  • Going back at least to the Enlightenment, Europeans have imagined a hard border between each individual human and the world around them. This shows up in dualisms like mind and body, or subject and object. Think about the very word “in  dividual” — to be a proper subject is to have a certain amount of sovereignty and independence, to be static, unitary, and self-interested. 
  • Under the Western idea of the nation-state, the classical subject is the basic organizing unit for rights and recognition, a citizen who equal before the law. In a similar way, under market capitalism, the subject is a rational and competitive economic actor, such as a consumer or producer, a worker or an employer. 
  • I want to underline that this particular kind of subjecthood is not only assumed, but enforced, by these systems. To be a subject of the state or of the market is to be calculable and legible; in their eyes, subjects are not only equal, but interchangeable. This is a veneer of rational order that is used to legitimate the violence and structural inequality of the system itself. On a fundamental level, sovereign subjectivity is about property, borders, and exclusion. Those who are excluded are called things like refugee, undocumented, homeless, pirate, prisoner, slave. 
  • The argument I’m building toward is that user is to platform as citizen is to state, and as the idealized rational buyer or seller is to market. That may seem like almost a trivial analogy, but I think it takes on a little more significance when we remember that although the individual, Enlightenment subject has been widely critiqued and contested in those more familiar contexts of the state and the market, for the most part we remain unable even to conceive of ways of interacting with digital technology beyond the construction of the “user.”
  • Now, we could spend all day going through some of the critiques of the humanistic subject that have arisen from fields like cultural studies, decolonial studies, feminist or queer theory, or poststructuralism, and some of those will come up later on, but one of the key points I want to make is that you don’t have to be a French philosopher to see that this way of thinking about ourselves and each other is highly restrictive and I think even harmful. 
  • That’s because intuitively, we all know that selfhood is not given or fixed. It’s permeable and dynamically evolving as we move through the world and use the language available to us to try and make sense of our experiences and our relationships. Even when we aren’t visibly excluded because of race, gender, class, or other identities, we’re harmed by these systems—and i think social media is one of them—that try to reduce us to the calculable or the legible, or expect us to still be tomorrow exactly who we were today, or pit us against each other in a war of all against all.
  • So what I want to do today is look at how exactly that kind of subjectivity is reproduced by the design paradigm of the social media user, and whether or not there might be some cracks in that facade.
  • When you log on to a platform like Twitter or Facebook, what you see is your own personalized view into their worlds. That view is made up of the people you follow, the stuff they’ve posted, the notifications that let you know who’s interacting with you… It’s inherently a partial and individually-situated window into basically a database, that would otherwise be an incomprehensible totality. 
  • Imagine looking down at this same totality from the bird’s-eye view of the platform itself, or its administrators. From that perspective, the fact that a post is created over here is completely independent from the fact that you see it in your feed over there. It’s only via the artificially designed subject position of the user that events are organized into a world that can be experienced. When this is the only way we are ever allowed see ourselves or each other, that subject position becomes internalized. We can feel this happening to us, and we hate it.
  • On the backend, of course, the user exists only as a unique identifier with a bundle of metadata fields, associated in turn with user inputs and other data traces. Social platforms are fundamentally agnostic about who it is that’s is using them, who’s on the other side of the screen, and in this sense they’re ahistorical in their view of the world. 
  • It’s not just that on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog: it’s that Facebook doesn’t care if you’re a dog as long as it can still serve you ads.
  • On the front-end, the construct of the user is reflected back to us via the user profile. The profile is something between a bumper-car and a funhouse mirror: it’s both the constant labor of maintaining a public face, as well as the vehicle through which we interact with others. Sovereignty is hardcoded as privacy, but it’s always already compromised, not by hackers but by the platform itself. Visible metrics such as the number of friends or followers we have, or the number of likes or shares we get, become social currency that turns the mere activity of talking to each other into a game with winners and losers. And it’s not just about being tied to a real name profile—Reddit is mostly anonymous, but it has the most explicitly gamified social currency system out there.
  • These subjective experiences—of competitiveness, and isolation, and alienation from ourselves and each other—are the results of the particular design choices that cast us in the performative role of the “user.” These effects have material and technical origins, but they inevitably make their way into the kinds of culture and sociality that happens on, with, or through the platforms. What I want to suggest, is that all those things we mentioned earlier that make platforms into hellsites are downstream from here. A person sharing a Covid truther article, for example, is inherently tied to their labor to construct and maintain a narrative about who they are in, on this platform, relation to their imagined audience.
  • In other words, humanism as an ideology is what underlies the social media platform just as it underlies the institutions of market capitalism and the nation state. Platforms work to reproduce this ideology by forcing us into the subject-position of the user. Many of us have heard by now the saying that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” I think it’s for the exact same reasons that we find it so hard to dream up a social platform that’s not just another Twitter clone.
  • That being said, the ideological process I’ve described is not inevitable, and its work on us is always incomplete. If you think about it, tiny subversions are everywhere we look: the Finsta or the Twitter alt where we take anything too edgy for main. Pet pages on Instagram, as another recent TtW panelist talked about. Facebook groups where college students roleplay as ants in an antfarm. Or even sneaking jokes into anonymous Wikipedia edits. 
  • There’s a sense of silliness or even relief we feel whenever we step outside of the confines of being strictly “ourselves” on social media, and I think that feeling of relief is itself evidence that we experience userhood as unfreedom. At the far end of this spectrum is the abject figure of the lurker, who withdraws from recognition and refuses to participate altogether. 
  • At the same time, many of these examples strike us as not quite kosher, or even as “misuse.” We think of 4chan as the classic case of anonymity festering into toxic subcultures. This anxiety also crops up when we think about “users” that are something other than human, such as AI influencers, or Russian bot armies, or even the way we talk about “the algorithm,” as if the platform itself is some kind of capricious deity. I want to lean into that anxiety about the inhuman and see where it takes us.
  • Now, I’m far from the first person who has tried to do this kind of deconstruction of the user. In particular, “Post-Userism” is this really great 2017 academic paper by Eric Baumer and Jed Brubaker in Human-Computer Interaction. They trace the history of the user back to timesharing in mainframe terminals, and show how the idea of the user evolved as computers entered the workplace and then the home. Like me, they’re interested in the limitations of the user as a design construct, and they’re skeptical of so-called “human-centered design” as an approach. They even go through some of the same examples I just mentioned.
  • I think where I would draw a distinction between this paper and my interest here is that their approach is mostly descriptive and solution-oriented. They talk about “scenarios where the user breaks down” on its own because of some kind of unanticipated use, and they encourage designers and technologists to better prepare for those cases.
  • In contrast, what I’m interested in would more properly be called anti-userism: actively designing situations in which a person’s sense of being a single, static, Enlightenment subject is broken down intentionally. I want to recruit the people previously called users as accomplices in the deconstruction, even the abolition, of the material and technical conditions through which userhood is reproduced.
  • I want to make a brief note about the title of this talk, “Abolish the User.” This is a word choice I made in late 2019, when to be transparent, ABOLITION as an antiracist political program did not have quite the same urgency in my mind as it does today, in the wake of the George Floyd protests. 
  • That being said, there’s a deep connection between the modern prison abolition movement and the writings of Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and others who have shown how the supposedly universal subject of European humanism is in fact entirely structured around the exclusion and dehumanization of Black and colonized people. The answer they propose is not more recognition, more inclusion, but the abolition of the conditions that require those things as a prerequisite for safety and wellbeing.
  • Applying abolition in this sense to the context of technology, I’m reminded of the activists who work to make things like facial recognition or predictive policing be banned altogether, rather than merely trying to improve the diversity of the datasets used to train the algorithms.
  • At the same time, it’s often said that abolition is about presence, not absence. Doing away with harmful and unnecessary institutions is only half the story—the more interesting thing is what that clears room for. This is where I think the really exciting work is.
  • One thing I’m excited about is Darius Kazemi’s work to adapt Mastodon for small-scale autonomous social platforms, on the scale of neighborhoods. Experiments like this are easier and cheaper than you might think, and we need more of them. But too often they just rework the same tired paradigms we’ve been living under. Can we design an anti-facebook instead? or an anti-twitter? 
  • It goes without saying that we also have to do away with the mindset that values only rapid growth, disruption, or profit margins on behalf of an extractive owner class. In this sense, what I want is not even a platform, but truly an anti-platform: I want to erase the sharp divide between the people currently called users vs the people who are paid to build & maintain what’s under the hood. Embracing the specific historicity of all these participants rather than claiming to be agnostic or neutral about who they are and what they want. 
  • I’m inspired by the work of Arturo Escobar, who wrote a book called “Designs for the Pluriverse.” He draws from what’s called the “ontological turn” in anthropology to envision design paradigms that, in the words of the Zapatistas, allow for “a world in which many worlds fit.” 
  • Instead of being locked inside an iron cage tied to my login details, I want to be and become alongside others, human and inhuman, using sociotechnical systems that are also autonomous zones, operating on a completely different physics from what we are familiar with today. 
  • Going back to the image of the lattice and the vine, I want us to imagine different kinds of sociotechnical projects. Ones that explicitly set out to enable new forms of culture and sociality that simply aren’t possible when everything is designed around the assumption of singular, competitive, static human subjects. I want social spaces that are more generous, more playful, more noisy, more opaque to power.
  • I think that this kind of reimagining, is an urgent necessity if we want another world, or many worlds, to be possible.
  • Thank you!