The Biopolitics of Interface Design

Gabi Schaffzin // This week I read two pieces which had me thinking about the ways that our bodies are controlled via an often overlooked field in the health humanities: interface design.

The first, Mark Paterson’s 2018 essay, “The Biopolitics of Sensation, Techniques of Quantification, and the Production of a ‘New’ Sensorium,” was sent to me by a close friend and collaborator who knows that my work draws heavily from the history of the quantified self and pain measurement. Published in Common Sense and Critical Sensibilities, Paterson’s work layers a history of sensation studies with that of “physiological aesthetics” to eventually argue that a collective understanding of sense is necessary and should be updated often in order to understand how contemporary cultural practices might be understood through Foucauldian biopolitics.

Paterson’s previous works (see his books published in 2007, 2012, and 2016) are related to haptics—the science of touch—so it’s no surprise that he situates this work around the question of how touch sensitivity was measured in the 19th century. Specifically, he notes that the study of a subject’s sense of touch, unlike eyesight or hearing tests, could not rely on a consistent, “exteroceptive” stimulus. Rather, “pain and touch necessitated the development of indirect procedures,” such as Étienne-Jules Marey’s 1863 sphygmograph, which would be strapped to a subject’s wrist before it applied a measurable amount of pressure to the wearer’s skin (Paterson 75). Citing the psychological experiments of E. H. Weber (1834) and G. T. Fechner (1860), Paterson demonstrates early physiological struggles to measure senses (that is touch, and its relative, pain) that would not be proven to be subjective for another hundred years (by Henry Beecher, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog).

A direct sphygmograph adapted and made portable by Étienne- Jules Marey in 1863. From Paterson 2018, 69.

Where Paterson’s essay really stands out, however, is the way that he links these experiments by Weber and Fechner to the aesthetic musings of French polymath Charles Henry. Henry was taken by the technique of pointillist impressionists Seurat, Signac, and the like, and he argued for the recognition of a new sort of aesthetic expertise:

…through artful and experimental arrangements and interactions between bodies and machines, aesthetically fascinating curves and lines could result, and the usual physiological directionality (of movement and then measurement) was reversed. For Henry, this was a recipe for a new set of artistic practices and formalisms…a new language of artistic modernism. (Paterson 82)

Paterson goes on to link this sort of “physiological aesthetics”—wherein the artist considers what effects their work will have on the viewer’s sensory systems—to the neurological research done in Hollywood today by hooking film audiences up to fMRIs and tracking how various edits of the same scene change their brain activity. Harkening back to Weber and Fechner’s work, he notes that any interrogations into the “ephemeral sensation” must be understood as building up artificial binaries along a spectrum of sensing. Think, for example, of the steps along Marey’s sphygmograph—what exactly is a unit of feeling touch?—or even of today’s FitBit—who’s to say what a true or universal “step” is? Now apply these same thresholds to affect.

This is where Foucault’s biopolitics becomes a critical framework to interrogate these neoliberal projects: the space where the “pre- or nonconscious bodily changes at the molecular level”  and, per Patricia Clough, a “postbiological threshold” becomes the primary focus of researchers (Paterson 88). The substances making up the body simply become valuable as informing a collective sensorium upon which late capital can act and profit.

Turn, then, to the second piece which I’d like to reference here: a post by developer and curator Ana Meisel on the Cyborgology blog (where I also contribute regularly), entitled “Beneath the Facade”. Meisel reflects on her and a colleague’s experiences reviewing biotech websites for a digital exhibition, Baba Yaga Myco Glitch. “Working on BYMG™,” she writes, “catalysed the exploration of the shifting critiques of interface design in the User Experience Community.” Meisel goes on to provide a number of common tropes among the sites she reviewed (“Generic corporate interface features such as full-width nav bars, header slideshows, fade animations, and contact information were distributed in a determined chronology of vertically-partitioned main sections.”) as well as some broader online interface common practices meant to guide users to act through confusion or trickery (see Neal Agarwal’s “Dark Patterns”).

In the piece, Meisel argues that the user interface has become a metric by which we judge the companies and organizations we seek out online. That is, the job of the UI designer is to build a facade that projects a well established project or product—one that elicits confidence in the user that their experience is being mediated properly. If the job is done properly, then the organization in which a user places their trust is legitimate and worthy of investment, be it financial or otherwise. This same focus on presentation can be seen in the ways that search engine result pages are designed, often to drive traffic to one of the first three results. These resultant sites, of course, have studied that same search engine’s algorithmic recommendations to fill their pages with the “right” keywords or links. Google says Term X will put you at the top, you fill your site with Term X, and Term X retains its status as highly influential.

When I was 18, I got a job at one of the first Apple Stores. I was naive enough and the space was pristine enough that, when the store finally opened after months of preparation, it felt like a museum dedicated to the art of design. And this was no mistake: I was told how Steve Jobs threw his patented fits over the width of benches (he was particularly angry how the Americans with Disabilities Act foiled his planned “theater” seating arrangements) and color of carpets. I was told, as well, about the false wooden floor, built a full six inches above the mall’s concrete surface. This was done to enable the entrance to the space to have a slight incline; the idea, according to my sales manager, was that when a human steps half way up a ramp, they want to finish the task. So anyone curious about this new phenomenon—that is, a store run by Apple Computer—might take one step into the space and the ramp would do the rest of the work.

Action on websites—clicking, scrolling, reading—is not just guided, but driven by principles of collective affect. Eye-tracking studies combine with large-n trials of A/B testing to capture what makes us, the users, feel right. But the bodies, as Clough might argue, are just conduits through which the actions take place. Interfaces are designed to turn affect into clicks, to push us over those same postbiological thresholds artificially set by Weber, Fechner, and the Hollywood fMRI techs for the purpose of scientific interrogation. The interfaces that encourage us to take the final few steps up into the store are governed by physiological aesthetics that, to cite Paterson’s closing, must be taken up by the humanities as “richly productive areas of concern” (Paterson 92).

Works Cited

Beneath the Facade – Cyborgology. Accessed 31 July 2019.

Mark Paterson. “The Biopolitics of Sensation, Techniques of Quantification, and the Production of a ‘New’ Sensorium.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 5, no. 3, 2018, p. 67. Crossref, doi:10.5250/resilience.5.3.0067.

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