A strange advertisement appeared to me while I was scrolling through my Instagram stories.
It read, “Hey, Whitman students! Ready to become the healthiest version of you this semester? Download BetterYou and register with your student email to start setting goals and earning rewards for completing them.”
Pictured also was the app itself, with four categories at varying percentages of completion: physical 76%, social 100%, education 67% and mindfulness at about 15%. A Whitman Blues logo was sloppily pasted in the upper-left-hand corner, while in the lower-right-hand corner there was a blurb reading: “sign up with your H&R Block employee email!”
BetterYou is part of a new generation of programs from the mental health industrial complex which intends to solve the mental health crisis imposed by technology with (you guessed it!) more technology. Staying up too late on your phone? Have your phone remind you to go to bed! Feeling scatterbrained? Have your phone guide you through a mindfulness exercise!
These behavior modification programs are part of a program of social control in which human beings are being stripped of their intuition and goaded by algorithms into a set of ready-made protocols. These are the subtle ways in which, already, human beings are being diverted away from thinking about the social and structural causes of alienation and suffering and are instead told to seek individually-tailored solutions to their individual problems.
How long until we’re fitted with sensors that detect our emotional state and suggest “solutions”? Imagine you’re fired from a precarious corporate job and you’re having trouble finding a new one. Suddenly your phone gives you a notification: “you seem pretty upset. Here are some breathing exercises.” Then, weeks later: “You’re getting upset pretty often these days! Here are some medications you should ask your doctor about.”
You can bet these apps will not suggest that you unionize for better wages, healthcare and job security.
By trying to engineer social reality, these programs are missing the point of what it means to be human and disfiguring what it means to participate in politics. Apps like BetterYou frame the human experience as a series of internal problems to be solved, rather than as a great mystery that provokes you as a subject to think for yourself and act in the name of your friends, neighbors and family.
This is the religion of capitalism today: the idea that your needs as an individual can be met by the algorithmic brain of the market and that other people are just a means to your own wellness. These apps are outsourcing to technology those elements of the human experience that used to be fulfilled by communities, and by doing so, are reducing human beings to single, isolated units whose hopes, wants and dreams are conceptualized and catered to in this narrow and confining way.
Look at BetterYou’s Twitter account and you will see what they promote to their customers, i.e. corporations and schools: improved worker/student productivity. Modern-day workplaces are often very toxic, so the goal of a program like BetterYou is to alleviate the symptoms of that toxicity — to provide a brief oasis for the worker, then release him back into the desert of alienation that is their workplace.
This is the same ideology that runs through the self-care and mindfulness movements that have taken over schools and corporate HR departments everywhere. Even the US military has its soldiers complete mindfulness regimens, which apparently help with the stress of killing people and being shot at.
Americans should resist these efforts of social control. We should, between one another, develop the understanding that meaning in life can’t be curated on an individual basis, but must be cultivated between friends, family, neighbors and even strangers. That is what true politics is about, and God help us if we can’t come to see it.