“To the things themselves!”
Inspired by Husserl’s dictum, Peter-Paul Verbeek introduced his theory of technological mediation as part of a “thingly turn,” a “philosophy of artifacts” (Verbeek 2005 p. 3). As part of the postphenomenological tradition,Footnote 1 mediation theory aims to take concrete, socially situated technological artifacts seriously, recognizing the constitutive role they play in how we experience the world, how we act in it, and even the way we as subjects are constituted and can constitute ourselves (Verbeek 2005, 2011).Footnote 2 Drawing inspiration from, among others, Don Ihde (e.g., 1990), (Latour 1992, 1993), and Borgmann (1984), mediation theory develops a postphenomenological vocabulary with which to investigate the relations between human beings and technological artifacts and the way in which their interaction gives rise to them and their world as subjects and objects. Renouncing the a priori distinction between subjects and objects, mediation theory is explicitly amodern since it does not seek to “purify” (Latour 1993) humans and technologies. Rather, it recognizes that (moral) subjects are always shaped by technology without escape from its formative influence. As such, it can no longer uphold the modern, humanist conception of the subject, autonomous and free, with a monopoly on agency and (in principle) access to objective and universal knowledge. However, this raises at least two problems. First, does this outlook leave sufficient room for autonomy and freedom? And second, what would an ethics for mediation theory look like if humanist alternatives like deontology or utilitarianism will no longer do (Verbeek 2011)? Mediation theory has sought to answer these questions by a turn towards Michel Foucault (e.g., Dorrestijn 2012, 2017; Verbeek 2011).
This appropriation of Foucault’s work is fitting given its palpable parallels to mediation theory. His insistence on power structuring the way we live, speak, think, and behave is reminiscent of technology’s formative influence and attests to the difficulty of thinking the subject as autonomous. In his early work, Foucault rethought subjectivity as subjection, where subjectivity is imposed on our situated and embodied existence through “technologies of power.”Footnote 3 Such power is not just negative or oppressive; it is also productive. That is, without subjection through power, there would be no subjectivity at all. While much of this work focused on the power of knowledge/discourse (e.g., Foucault 1973, 1977), Foucault realized that technological artifacts are also a potent aspect of “technologies of power,” as is clear from his analysis of surveillance in Bentham’s panopticon (Foucault 1977), and of the “instrumental coding of the body” through training with pencils and rifles (p. 153). For Foucault as well as for mediation theory, “technologies form a structure of power, disciplining, organizing and normalizing the subject” (Verbeek 2011 p. 70). However, this still leaves our questions unanswered. What about freedom? What about ethics?
Foucault: Freedom and an Ethics for Technological Mediation
In his later work, Foucault returned to the question of the subject, ethics, and freedom when, as a form of opposition to technologies of power more positive than “mere” resistance, he proposed the revival of the ancient practice of “care of the self” through “technologies of the self” (Foucault 1986, 1990). He described the latter as “those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves” (Foucault 1990 p. 10). This may seem odd given the flair of determinism in his early work,Footnote 4 but Foucault clarifies that “[p]ower is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free […] The relationship between power and freedom’s refusal to submit cannot, therefore, be separated” (Foucault 1982 p. 790). Thus, he submits, freedom is only possible as a practice within and in relation to power structures. He proposes the “care of the self” as such a practice of freedom (Fornet-betancourt et al. 1987) in which the goal is not to dissolve power (which is productive and ubiquitous) but to critically relate oneself to it. One cares for the self through engaging in the abovementioned “technologies of the self”: transformative practices and exercises that operate through askēsis, a training of the self by oneself through spiritual self-discipline. Such is Foucault’s proposal for an ethics appropriate after the “the death of man” (Foucault 1989), not as a set of rules and norms, but as an ēthos: “a way of being and of behavior” (Foucault 1997 p. 286) that limits one’s determination by power through subjectivation rather than subjection. This ethics of subjectivation has subsequently been appropriated by mediation theory (Dorrestijn 2012, 2017; Verbeek 2011). That is, instead of resisting technology or being determined by it, an appropriate ethics/ethos for our technological age is to be found in interaction with technologies; by exploring the ways in which technologies mediate our lives and by “finding a relation to these mediations, incorporating them in our existence, human beings can further shape and stylize their moral subjectivity” (Verbeek 2011 p. 82).
The role of technologies in this process seems clear: technologies form power structures to which one relates through Foucaultian “technologies of the self.” However, this focus leaves unexplored how concrete technologies can support the very exercise of those “technologies of the self” that aid in critical self-development. Postphenomenological accounts of self-development have hitherto mainly focused on human enhancement technologies and our relation to them (e.g., Coeckelbergh 2013; Hofmann and Svenaeus 2018; Kudina and Verbeek 2018; Lewis 2018; Verbeek 2008) but have yet to elaborate on how concrete technologies could themselves support Verbeek’s (2011) and Dorrestijn’s (2012, 2017) process of subjectivation. Nonetheless, Foucault himself already affirmed the importance of such 'technologies of technologies of the self.' In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, he describes how ancient practices of writing (of letters, notebooks, treatises, or diaries) invited introspection and new forms of experiencing the self (Foucault 1997). The resulting texts “served as functional devices that would enable individuals to question their own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it, and to shape themselves as ethical subjects” (Foucault 1990 p. 13). As such, these practices constituted a form of “self-writing” that was supported by concrete technical artifacts, e.g., paper notebooks, pens, ink, etc. In a postphenomenological vocabulary, these concrete technologies can thus be said to play a mediating role in our relation to ourselves and others and how we constitute ourselves therein. For example, letters are “more than a training of oneself by means of writing, through the advice and opinions one gives to the other: it also constitutes a certain way of manifesting oneself to oneself and to others” (Foucault 1997 p. 216). Additionally, Foucault already hinted at the form that such mediation takes when he explained that technologies of writing can be an “other” to the subject. Reflecting upon the notebook, he explains that “it palliates the dangers of solitude; it offers what one has done or thought to a possible gaze; the fact of obliging oneself to write plays the role of a companion by giving rise to the fear of disapproval and to shame. […] what others are to the ascetic in a community, the notebook is to the recluse” (Foucault 1997 pp. 207–208, emphasis added).
It stands to reason that a better understanding how these technologies support practices of the self requires answering the question of how we relate to such technologies and how they are able to conjure up morally salient sentiments such as shame. Below, we provide a (post)phenomenological account of how it mediates our relation to others and ourselves and how these relations motivate us to engage in practices of the self. In this paper, we do so by investigating a modern alternative to these ancient technologies. Given that “[t]he practice of the self is established against a background of errors, bad habits, and an established and deeply ingrained deformation and dependence that must be shaken off” (Foucault 2005 p. 94), the technology analyzed here is aimed at self-improvement through self-directed guidance of action and the development of good habits, i.e., a gamified form of the To-Do list.
A Tale of To-Do’s
The stereotypical To-Do list is simple enough. One can jot down a list of tasks to be fulfilled on a sheet of paper, thereby providing both structure and presence to those tasks. This allows for better planning, setting of priorities, and remembering that these things need doing. However, like many tools in the Information Age, the humble To-Do list has not escaped translation into virtual and elaborated form. Indeed, To-Do list apps have expanded in flexibility (in terms of structuring tasks), interconnectedness (with others and other applications like calendars and social media platforms), and presence (in terms of the omnipresence of devices and the intrusiveness of notifications). However, some To-Do list apps have gone even further by purposefully including elements that are meant to motivate users to fulfill tasks set by them. This paper discusses one such app that claims to motivate its users by employing gamification, using game elements in the nongame context of everyday life (Deterding et al. 2011): Habitica.
Habitica and the Gamified Life
Habitica is meant to be a “habit-building and productivity app that treats your real life like a game”.Footnote 5 It turns life into a role-playing game (RPG) in which the habits you want to develop, daily tasks, and other tasks on your To-Do list are treated as “monsters” that one(‘s virtual character) must defeat, gaining experience, virtual gold, new gear, and other rewards in the process. It is also possible to join up with others in “parties” or “guilds” and battle “bosses” like the “SnackLess Monster” or the “Laundromancer” together. Even the visual style reminds one of old-school computer games (see Fig. 1).
Of course, at a basic level, Habitica simply turns aspects of everyday life (fulfilling habits, daily activities, and To-Do’s) into game data and presents them back to its user. This places Habitica squarely in a general trendFootnote 6 where, through the use of smart phones and other tracking devices, “measuring and tracing aspects of the ‘personal’ and ‘the everyday’ is becoming more commonplace,” which in turn “contribute[s] to opening a widening field of everyday life to scrutiny and intervention, connecting with the theme of self-optimization” (Ruckenstein 2014 p. 68–69). Such tracking technologies generally present us with “data doubles” that, after situated and active interpretation and reflection, allow for new ways of understanding, acting upon, and relating to ourselves (Pantzar and Ruckenstein 2017; Ruckenstein 2014; Sharon and Zandbergen 2017). However, as indicated above, many of these applications go further than simply “producing data” that users can relate to and purposely include features meant to motivate users to engage in specific self-optimizing practices,Footnote 7 such as “target numbers, risk scores and gamified incentives” (Pantzar and Ruckenstein 2017 p. 2, emphasis added). Indeed, many self-tracking apps, including apps aimed at improving productivity, use game elements to help motivate users to do things they would otherwise not (Hamari et al. 2014).Footnote 8 With Habitica aiming to improve productivity by treating its users’ lives like an RPG, it has clearly chosen such gamified incentives as the mechanisms by which it wishes to motivate them to work on themselves. It is no coincidence, then, that its format employs many of the standard tools in the gamification toolbox, such as documentation of behavior, score systems, levels, quests, group tasks, avatars, and virtual worlds (Blohm and Leimeister 2013), with the “leveling” of the users avatar (Habitica’s most prominent “data double”) metaphorically embodying the underlying teleology of self-improvement. Together, these mechanisms of gamification are supposed to motivate users of Habitica by providing positive and negative reinforcement in favor of behaviors that are in line with the tasks the user has set for herself/himself, habituating those set for repetition (Robson et al. 2015; Skinner 1938; Steffen et al. 2015). Armed with the power of operant conditioning, then, Habitica aims to change its users’ lives for the better.
At the same time, however, there is something terribly amiss in that description. That is, the behaviorist schema of punishments and rewards incorporated into Habitica’s “gameplay” fails to account fully for the motivation that it invokes. There is something more visceral about using of Habitica that pushes me to do better. This is not “just a game.” The stakes are high: they are me, my responsibilities, and my personal development. On top of this, there is also something rather peculiar about the way in which I experience and relate to the game and, in so doing, to myself. As the analysis in this paper aims to show, its role in subjectivation can be illuminated through investigating these additional aspects of the gamified To-Do-list. Notably, the way we conduct this investigation is already foreshadowed in the tonal shift that characterizes this paragraph. Rather than speaking in first person plural as the authors (“we”), our (post)phenomenological approach to investigating technologically mediated subjectivation requires a methodological shift to the subjective, first person perspective (‘I/me/myself”) for describing experiences and/or phenomenologically salient aspects thereof. As such, the analysis in the following sections is steeped in that perspective, starting with the description of experiences with Habitica below. When clarifying issues of methodology or procedure, and when summarizing or concluding, however, we do revert to speaking from our position as authors.Footnote 9
Confrontation, Objectification, and Ascetic Practices
The following paragraphs describe experiences with Habitica and how it gets me to focus on the tasks I set myself rather than doing more immediately gratifying activities. The latter are seductive to me, as I tend to procrastinate. This often takes the form of sifting through social media feeds and gorging on online media, while sinking into my chair and letting my covetous eyes and hands take over, inadvertently scrolling or clicking on to one more video. While I am doing so, I am not concerned with myself. Rather, I am (temporarily) carefree, not because the videos are more important than my goals but because in a seemingly never-ending stream of them, I lose track of my surroundings, of time, and even myself. That is, I am relieved and content.
However, at some point, whether by seeing its logo on my smartphone screen, the bookmark in my browser, or the notification that Habitica sends me, I am suddenly confronted with my own gluttonous behavior. I “walk in on myself” and do not like what I see, an unpleasant wake-up call. I am ashamed before myself and others (e.g., party members). The app even shows me that I have done myself short. My avatar has lost health points and is hurt. I(t) am/is no longer healthy. Even worse, my party members might have “taken damage” as a result of my lackadaisical conduct. At a glance, however, I see how I can redeem myself. My task list is right there. Habitica not only shows me a representation of me that shows me hurting myself but provides the terms in which I need to understand myself and the road to self-betterment. It provides a roadmap in terms of ascetic practices (determined by me) that I can undertake, ascetic since I would have to undertake them in spite of myself (or at least the part of me that wants to watch more motorcycle videos), and habituating them requires discipline on my part. Apparently inadvertently, however, I end up falling back into some bad habits. And the process repeats itself, even if I am now closer to gaining another “level,” representing the fact that I have supposedly “improved.” As such, the process of self-improvement starts in enjoyment being questioned in a confrontational moment. After this, I am thematized in such a way that my shortcomings become clear and can be overcome. These moments lead to episodes of ascetic practices or, in Foucaultian terms, technologies of the self, which in turn serve to improve myself, to consciously subjectivate (at least in Habitica, since I determine the content and quantity of these practices). Once on its way, the process oscillates between these episodes and moments, between ascesis falling back into enjoyment, punctuated by confrontation which again invites practices given shape in moments of objectification.Footnote 10
Some of the elements described above are compatible with the mediation theory’s ethics of subjectivation, especially concerning introspection (e.g., choices in character development, both virtual and real), self-writing (in terms of habits and dailies), and the support for ascetic, disciplined practices. As such, Habitica may be able to support the exercise of technologies of the self. However, there are at least two related aspects that require further explanation. First, if it is to support an ethics of self-care for mediation theory, the way in which the technology helps mediate my relation to myself needs to be further explored. Secondly, and more interestingly, neither mediation theory nor its Foucaultian ethics of subjectivation fully account for the motivating force of the confrontation with myself. Both of these aspects are explored below, starting with the former.