Citizen-centred haptic environments and expert design: a contradiction – or even an oxymoron?

I posted three photos over at Instagram a couple of hours ago.

I’ll repost them one by one below, with an elaborated background behind the thinking contained in their sequence.



This first one is a photo of my phone: I have baptised it the Motogotchi, as it is quite temperamental and in need of high-maintenance upkeep.  It has helped me take certain life-forming positions, as before getting it I had already acquired the custom of interpreting – in a curiously oracle-like way (in other eras I would never be seen as mad) – what I see around me, in order to help me uncover and reveal to myself what I am thinking anyway.



This second one describes what I suspect is going on: FACT Liverpool-based technology being used in an extremely imaginative, creative and – from the point of view of the experts working on whatever exactly they are working on – supportive technologies.

Fundamental to this tech – and the environment it generates around the individual in question – is that certain assumptions must be made, a priori, about what the citizen in particular actually needs in their life which they currently don’t have – or, alternatively, has in their life which they definitely don’t need.

These assumptions, in my experience, heavily use what is called “nudge theory” to move people gently, subtly, never overtly, in the direction of where the expert designers have decided they best should go.  But in their very gentleness and subtlety I take serious issue – as you will see from the words I post in the Instagram.  In my case, whilst consent may have been obtained at some point during a multitude of conversations I have had over the past year – and, indeed, years – with all kinds of people, as well as in regard of what I have maybe foolishly written, asserted, and offered up online since 2002-2003 in my blogging, I doubt an informed consent was obtained.

Additionally, as I say, again in the Instagram, I definitely have felt over the past few years, and most absolutely in the past two or so, that I occupy the place of the Melians in the dialogue conducted with the Athenians.  The easy, casual, and ever-so-quietly aggressive pragmatism of the super-powerful exhibited by this conversation was brought to my attention some years ago in London at a lunchtime meeting with Google’s top lawyer, Bill Patry.  I wrote about it at a blogsite which is no longer online, but before I took it offline, I uploaded this now legacy post to a website of my collected writings.  The post which describes the Google encounter can be found here.

Those with such super-power, then, if this example is judged representative, have no intention of contemplating the moral limits of their manifest ability to make and shake.

Why do I feel myself in a similar situation?  Because whilst I sincerely believe that whatever is being done is being done out of the best of intentions, and that not only last year and then more recently but extremely lately too I have begun to reap considerable personal and professional benefits from the process, I cannot shrug off the feeling that there is a huge contradiction – maybe a full-blown oxymoron – in centring such processes around individual citizens to the degree I believe has been happening in my case without a prior consultation in the very fundamentals of their design, their technology, their goals and the tracking and follow-up of their ongoing outcomes.

As I tweeted and wrote the other day, I find nudge itself a dangerous, possibly altogether bad, idea from beginning to end: not only because we are mostly only conscious of it in a limited way – a way which may lead to realities being denied, and therefore mental distress, especially symptoms and diagnoses of paranoia, increasing – but also because it only works well when ownership and origin can be denied and hidden away.

If we know what they are trying to make us do, even if for our own good, and even if we might accept that this be the case, the ballsy and stubborn streak in all humanity may then just have enough evidence to say: “Piss off!”

It only works, therefore, when the evidence is slight enough to remain entirely deniable.

My Motogotchi, if it is as I describe and not just shit tech, is obviously part of a much wider set of places, spaces, triggers and events.  And even though in terms of my own psychological profile it is a flawed tool as it stands, it could easily work for others who don’t mind being nudged – who, in fact, see such attention as being utterly supportive and coherent.  I remember a brief conversation I had with a Vodafone Spain student I was teaching English to in June: she described how what was essentially home-surveillance tech made some elderly and extremely lonely people in need of constant care feel looked after and even, perhaps, wanted.

So just because it works imprecisely for me, or needs tweaking, or in my case – especially with my history of supposed paranoid schizophrenia behind me – is something I see as downright insulting to my being and my sense of myself, particularly in the light of all the familial and medical battles I have had to fight to clear my name and reputation, this doesn’t mean in the least that the idea doesn’t have considerable value: clearly worth pursuing, clearly worth further investigation and research, clearly a valuable future contribution to a much broader human and societal happiness.

And therein my final caveat: if you have read any of my writings, you will know by now I don’t believe in mental illness or ill-health but, rather, much more fundamentally, in mental distress.  Mental illness locates the source and origin of the alleged disorder within the individual, much as Dr Emma Murray, describing in her writings on her method “veteranality”, compares and contrasts the tendency to assign personalised diagnoses of PTSD to veterans, arguably putting the blame and responsibility for their recovery on them as these individuals.  Whereas the reality might be quite different.

For just as veteranality explores the possibility that soldiers are as much the victims of war – of the environment and everything associated with it – as civilians always have been, so mental distress puts across the argument that the environment is what is essentially dysfunctional in the dynamic of mental ill-health, not the individual patient as traditionally diagnosed.  And this is such an important point, it really is: if you want to solve the problems of returning soldiers and their integration, look at environments and spaces and societal attitudes in order to make the necessary adjustments there.  Don’t force them to adapt themselves to any old shit shoved their way, when it’s their training, their experiences, their outsides in all respects, that are impacting so hurtfully on their insides.

Similarly, citizens with mental distress need their environments to be changed – their societies even: for it is similarly unfair, always, to blame the victim for their circumstances; and never more so here.  We would never justify telling a rape victim they need to change how they feel, and deal with it on their lonesome, without substantially addressing first all the societal forces at work which have made, and continue to make, rape an acceptable behaviour – or a negotiable behaviour, at least – in too many cases.

And so if not rape, neither should we do the same with veterans or those with mental distress.

And so, in a rather long-winded way, we arrive at the oxymoron I suggested earlier: is it possible to be citizen-centred without involving fundamentally the citizen in the design of everything that is centred on them?

Has this been the case in my situation?

Has there been informed consent?

Or have I imagined absolutely everything I have written down today – and in so doing, now find myself at the mercy of medical, institutional and perhaps criminal justice proceedings?

Who knows?

I dodge immediate responsibility by insisting this might be a thought experiment.  But I’d much rather it were a work proposal.

And then, as such, that it were able to return a degree of sanity to my curious internal mindscape as it currently sits.  That would be a nice thing to happen.  That, for me, would be better even than falling in love.



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