Here Come the Digital Overlords

Forget the sinister government plot lines—consumers appear willing to pay for some level of servitude to technology if it helps them overcome vexing problems.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 07, 2016

I can't tell you how many times a marketer from a consumer-facing IoT product or service company has told me something like "…but this isn't Minority Report…" as they respond to my questions about what consumer data a product or service collects, how long it stores that information, and who it might sell that data to or share it with.

I believe a fair number of consumers fear that technology is creeping into our lives in an invasive manner, and that one day we'll wake up to a world like the one that Philip K. Dick conjured in "Minority Report," his sci-fi thriller (later turned into a blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise) set in a sensor-filled Washington, D.C., in 2054, where police rely on technology to track citizens' every move and anticipate crimes before they happen.

While no one would actually want the dystopian future that story imagines, I am starting to see indications that consumers do want technology to whip them into shape. Or, in the case of Pavlok, to literally shock them into shape. With an electric charge.

The name Pavlok, of course, evokes the research of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and his findings about classical conditioning, in which, over time, a repeated stimulus evokes an associative response. Pavlok's product is a wristband initially launched, via an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, as a system for training people to become early-risers. Paired with a smartphone app, the bracelet initially vibrates to awaken a user, and then escalates to beeping. Finally, if the user does not get out of bed, it delivers a mild electric shock.

Based on many testimonials, it works for some people. Of course, there's nothing to stop you from taking the band off once the beeping tells you that the next wake-up prompt will include pain—but if you're awake enough to take the thing off, presumably you're awake enough to get out of bed.

Pavlok offers other applications as well. By pairing the smartphone app to your browser, the wristband can be set to zap you whenever you check a time-sucking website—Facebook, say. The idea is that you'll be quickly conditioned to, obviously, stay off Facebook. And now third parties are beginning to partner with Pavlok as well. A British firm called Intelligent Environments makes an application that taps into a user's bank account and helps her curb bad spending habits borne from the convenience of digital funds. The user sets a spending limit. When her balance nears that limit, her connected Pavlok wristband vibrates or beeps. If the user passes her spending limit: zappo! Alternatively, a user can link the application to a Nest thermostat and punish himself by setting his home's temperature to automatically plunge or escalate.

The uses of the Pavlok that I find most fascinating are those requiring users to manually shock themselves (by pressing the top of the wristband) in order to stop habits they want to kick. For example, some people are actually pressing the bracelet after each time they bite into a midnight snack—until, eventually, they'll stop midnight-snacking. I don't really get it. It seems to me that if I had the willpower to zap myself, I'd have the willpower to stop bad habits. I've thought about trying it out… but, frankly, I really don't want to be shocked. Maybe my bad habits just aren't bad enough (yet)?

Really, this trend is just the natural progression of the quantified-self movement, wherein consumers have flocked to wearable fitness trackers, which can be used as a digital health coach. Will we soon see fitness bands that shock you for sitting on the couch when you should be at the gym? It wouldn't surprise me.

I believe this type of technology might see more lasting traction with consumers once it is paired with positional sensors or other types of monitors to alert people to subconscious, unhealthy, stress-induced behaviors, such as hair-pulling, nail-biting or thumb-sucking. That's what HabitAware has done with its bracelet, known as LIV. The company's founder, Aneela Idnani Kumar, had a serious hair-pulling problem, and set out with her husband, Sameer, to develop a bracelet that would learn to detect the repeated motions associated with those types of subconscious bad habits and then issue haptic alerts to help users curb them.

Maybe you'd consider this to simply be a kinder, gentler version of a digital overlord. But as a life-long nail-biter (especially when I'm on a big deadline!), I'm willing to give it a try.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of IoT Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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