Our identities are complex, robust, and multifaceted — and we deserve technology worthy of our rich human lives. Technology is a powerful vehicle for expression and representation, but it also affords and constrains what is possible. As McLuhan is credited with saying, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Today, our digital tools do a poor job of representing social complexity and nuance. In this talk, I will share a series of projects exploring the shortcomings of identity in technology — from gender identity, to relationships statuses, to our very mortality — and assert that the blame falls on one of HCI’s most treasured concepts: the user.
Drawing on STS, history of science, and media studies, I argue that the user has become an over-extended nexus of personhood, data, and design. Through research on LGBTQ+ identities, I argue that our identities have been made systematically anemic through classification and informational practices in technology. Focusing on relationships (and their dissolutions), I demonstrate how social media platforms fail to adequately account for peripheral ties and moments of transition. And through work on mortality, I show how technologists have conflated identity and the user account, obscuring issues of ownership, control, and access — particularly over time. If we are to move forward, the user and concordant ideas like human- and user-centered design are in need of rehabilitation. I will conclude by presenting post-userism as one potential path forward and argue that a renewed focus on personhood, relationality, and time are needed if we are to address HCI’s blind spots and support the indispensable complexity of our human lives.
Jed Brubaker is a Founding Assistant Professor of the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the director of CU’s Identity Lab where he and his collaborators conduct research in digital identity, social computing, human-computer interaction focusing on how identity is designed, represented, and experienced in socio-technical systems. By examining the relationships between social identity, digital identity, and identity data, his work helps us better understand the experiences, effects, and possibilities when technology mediates identity. He is best known for his research on digital afterlives, interactions with post-mortem data, and how to improve the management of accounts and personal data after we die. His work has received numerous awards, been featured widely in national and international press, and directly informed the design and development of Facebook’s post-mortem solution, Legacy Contact. Brubaker holds a Ph.D. in Information and Computer Sciences from the University of California - Irvine, an M.A. in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University, and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Utah.