The initial point is quite simple (see Fig. 1), but it soon gets complicated. We are all becoming, more and more, human interfaces, that is, spaces of interactions between, on one side (human, artificial, or hybrid) interfacing agents, who want something from us, and, on the other side, something that (at least in theory if not in practice) we have, and which they want, the interfaced resources. The goal of these interactions is to enable effective operation and control of the interfaced resources from the side of the interfacing agents, whilst the interfaced resources feedback information that helps the agents’ (decision-making) processes.
The transformation of people into human interfaces happens in many contexts, but three are crucial. For the world of social media, we are interfaces (human interface (HI)) between them (interfacing agent (IA)) and our personal data (interfaced resource (IR)). For the world of commerce, we (HI) are interfaces between them (IA) and our money or credit (IR). And for the world of politics, we are interfaces (HI) between them (IA) and our attention, consent, and votes (IR). I could go on, but these are the most significant contexts. They are interlinked and represent the social places (the markets) where the users, the consumers, and the citizens deal, on the supply side, with the main “demands”, by social media, commerce (which includes advertisement), and politics (I shall provide two more examples below: education and health care).
As I mentioned earlier, it is helpful to describe ourselves as interfaces because it enables one to clarify some crucial processes and hence have a better grasp of what could be done in order to improve them, if one does not like them.
The first clarification concerns who the interfaces are exactly. It would be foolish to think that there is really a fixed and immutable role between the “interfacing them”, as “they are always the agents who handle the interfaces”, and ourselves, as “we are always the interfaces”. In technical terms, “we” and “they” are indexical, which change reference depending on the context of use. In reality, “we” can also become “they”, and vice versa, depending on the perspective. More specifically, as users, we are also the interfacing agents (IA) who use social media as interfaces (HI) between us and their services (IR); as consumers, we are the interfacing agents (IA) who use companies as interfaces (HI) between us and their products (IR); and as citizens, we are the interfacing agents (IA) who use politics (or the politicians or the parties, the exact ontology does not matter here) as an interface (HI) between us and the society in which we would like to live (IR). It is easy to become confused in this game of mirrors or, better, of interfaces, but the point is quite simple: the roles in Fig. 1 are fixed, but who plays which role, how far and how well (think of biases, for example), changes contextually. With a final proviso, because each of us tends to be naturally self-centred, it is easier to see oneself as an interfacing agent (IA) using bits of the world as interfaces (HI) to try to obtain what one wants (IR), rather than as an interface (HI) used by bits of the world (IA) to obtain something the world wants from us (IR). This natural tendency is fully exploited by marketing strategies (more on them below), whenever they seek to make each individual feel to be the centre of their attention. A fully egocentric individual can hardly imagine to be just an interface used by others, and so it can be more easily manipulated and exploited. The current rhetoric of “disintermediation” and “user/consumer-centred (anything)” is a way of obfuscating the fact that, in the new re-intermediation, the actual interfaces are us.
The second clarification concerns the process of transformation (conceptually and factually) of people into interfaces. It is clear that, when one talks about the transformation of a context into a market (henceforth marketisation), for example, in terms of a certain type of privatisation of a sector in view of some macroeconomic strategy, one should actually understand that, more precisely, as an “interfacisation” (transformation into, and use as, interfaces) of the people involved in that context. For example, transforming education into a market, with relations of demands and supplies, means transforming learners into customers, with interfacing agents—society, families, administrative organisations, and the various suppliers or service providers of education (note that the interfacing agents can be hybrid systems)—interested in something to which the learners, now the new customers, give access as interfaces, namely (success, in terms of), school results, targets, standards, or training performance. Such a success becomes the newly interfaced resource that they want. This interfaced resource is “accessed” through the learners/interfaces. And it becomes more understandable and comparable the more it is quantifiable, in terms of data, funding obtained, value for money, grades, successful applications, job placements, and so forth.
Or consider the marketisation of well-being and health care. This means turning people into interfaces between the interfacing agents, who are now the providers of the goods or services, and the parameters that determine some pre-set level of “well-being” or “health”, the new interfaced resource, for example, the notorious 10,000 steps to do every day (Morley and Floridi 2019). Note, in this case, that not only are the roles between “them” and “us” interchangeable (who is the interface for whom?) but also that the interfacing agents can be artificial. To put it dramatically, an app becomes the interfacing agent that uses Alice as an interface to get to some pre-established performance (as a target) by Alice, the interfaced resource. Note, also, that actual user interfaces in the ordinary sense of the word (e.g., some visual information on an app) can easily refer to other interfacing agents (in this case the user of the app). This too can cause some confusion. And finally, the “interfacing game” soon becomes complicated because an app may also be a commercial product that is trying to get, through Alice-the-human-interface, to her interfaced data, money, or approval, or high rating, and so forth.
In all the previous cases, two procedural steps are fundamental: from the marketisation of a context to the interfacisation of the people involved in that context and from the interfacisation to the quantification of the criteria of whatever counts as success in obtaining the interfaced resource in that context. Individuals become keypads: get the numeric sequence right and you can “open” them to access what you need or want on the other side of the interaction. If, in real life, Alice uses “open sesame” as her password for a service, the joke is on her, because fiction now increasingly meets reality: she becomes what she thinks she is describing, an interface, and to use her as such, all Bob needs to do is to treat her as an interface with a password.
The use of human beings as mere interfaces (Wiener 1989) may not be necessarily done for evil purposes. The interfacing first, and then the utilisation of the interfaces after, may be done for the sake of the human keypads, e.g., to make them better educated or healthier. Yet, it is still not morally right, as I shall argue presently. This is a third clarification, which is ethical. Transforming and using individuals (users, consumers, citizens, learners, patients, etc.) simply as interfaces means not to respect their dignity as persons and to disregard what is ethically good for them intrinsically and individually. It contradicts the ethical principle, famously synthesised by Kant in the categorical imperative, that you should always “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant 2014). The only difference is that today, “treating simply as a means” is equivalent to “treating simply as an interface”. Manipulating someone, in the almost literal sense of keypadding someone as a means or an interface to obtain something else, is perhaps the most common way to dehumanise that someone, treating a person, for example, as a slave or a robot. This is why the vision of ourselves as mere interfaces is unfortunately realistic and makes us shudder a bit.
Thus, we come to the fourth and final explanation. If we are all becoming more and more like interfaces—regardless of the considerable confusion that all this may cause and the fact that it is ethically appalling—how does the control and management of these interfaces work exactly? This is a crucial question à la Machiavelli (the Machiavelli of the Discourses, (Machiavelli 2008)), because it is brutally realistic and factual, but it is not (at least not yet) Machiavellian (Machiavelli 2019), because it is not meant to be amorally astute in recommending some special relationship between means and ends. I just pointed out that it is not even a Kantian question, because it does not ask (or at least not yet) how one goes about changing or improving the situation. The question calls for an objective and not-yet ethical understanding of the situation itself. It invites us to investigate the mechanisms and logic that underlie the phenomenon, perhaps in view of a subsequent transformation for the better. In short, it is a question that privileges the epistemological moment to the ethical one.