Why It's OK to Let Apps Make You a Better Person

An ethicist considers the ramifications of using apps to improve our habits. And also whether willpower as we normally think about it even exists.

Digital Willpower.jpg

In article after article, one theme emerges from the media coverage of people's relationships with our current set of technologies: Consumers want digital willpower. App designers in touch with the latest trends in behavioral modification--nudging, the quantified self, and gamification--and good old-fashioned financial incentive manipulation, are tackling weakness of will. They're harnessing the power of payouts, cognitive biases, social networking, and biofeedback. The quantified self becomes the programmable self.

Skeptics might believe while this trend will grow as significant gains occur in developing wearable sensors and ambient intelligence, it doesn't point to anything new. After all, humans have always found creative ways to manipulate behavior through technology--whips, chastity belts, speed bumps, and alarm clocks all spring to mind. So, whether or not we're living in unprecedented times is a matter of debate, but nonetheless, the trend still has multiple interesting dimensions. 

Let's start here: Individuals are turning ever more aspects of their lives into managerial problems that require technological solutions. We have access to an ever-increasing array of free and inexpensive technologies that harness incredible computational power that effectively allows us to self-police behavior everywhere we go. As pervasiveness expands, so does trust. Our willingness to delegate tasks to trusted software has increased significantly.

Individuals (and, as we'll see, philosophers) are growing increasingly realistic about how limited their decision-making skills and resolve are. Moreover, we're not ashamed to discuss these limits publicly. Some embrace networked, data-driven lives and are comfortable volunteering embarrassing, real time information about what we're doing, whom we're doing it with, and how we feel about our monitored activities.

Put it all together and we can see that our conception of what it means to be human has become "design space." We're now Humanity 2.0, primed for optimization through commercial upgrades. And today's apps are more harbinger than endpoint.

Consider, for example, GymPact, an iPhone app that combines GPS tracking and financial rewards/penalties to motivate people to go the gym, is getting lots of attention. Fail to work out as regularly as you promised yourself, GymPact -- which has users register their geographical location via a "check-in" button -- can be configured so that funds transfer to participants with better resolve.

Or take myfitnesspal, which is geared towards folks who prefer the social networking route to exercise. My wife, Noreen, is thrilled with the ease by which it allows her and her iPhone-enabled sister to share caloric intake, fitness regimes, and encouraging notes. Before eating, Noreen consults the food index to determine the calories per serving of a given option. Having established a daily consumption goal, she can glance at the interface to check the number of calories she's already taken in and burned through exercise. What once was a taxing decision about how to proceed has thus become a no brainer; the program takes all the guesswork out of knowing what to do to maintain a healthy weight.

What about hotheads who can't resist sending flaming e-mails? There's an app for that, too! ToneCheck is the emotional analogue to a spell checking tool. Applying connotative intelligence research, it "automatically detects the tone in your email" and, if a draft exceeds the threshold for negative emotions (e.g., anger or sadness), it offers the author a warning that can prompt revision.

Then, there is StayFocused, a motivational tool for "giving your will power a break." Like fitness, minimizing online distraction is a popular resolution. The Chrome extension allows users to designate blocked sites that they want to limit their own access to. This self-imposed discipline resembles the strategy used by the mythical Odysseus who asked his crew to tie him to the mast because he knew he lacked the willpower to avoid succumbing to the sirens' sweet but deadly songs. Similarly, folks who know they spend too much time on Facebook and Twitter but succumb to the addiction anyway can self-police by virtually binding their own hands.

The final example is a variation of the Stayfocused theme, but worth mentioning in its own right because the name perfectly captures the time we're living in. Freedom is a productivity app that eliminates distraction for periods ranging from one minute to eight hours by disabling a computer's capacity for networking--cutting off Facebook, Twitter, online shopping, e-mail, instant messaging, et cetera. That's right, freedom now means the willful use of technology to limit one's options!

Could these and similar motivating technologies solve humanity's perennial willpower crisis? This would be especially welcoming if the tools proved useful against complex diseases, like drug addiction. But, what about the mundane cases just described?

Not surprisingly, philosophers have had much to say about the enticing and seemingly inevitable dispersion of technological mental prosthetic that promise to substitute or enhance some of our motivational powers.

Their comments suggest consuming digital willpower may not be as innocent or simple as it may first seem. However, an emerging strain of philosophical inquiry could upend these traditional criticisms and open the door to guilt-free willpower enhancement.

Ethical Concerns About Digital Willpower

First, critics voice skepticism about the effectiveness of new media tools for enhancing willpower. Some say that there's a "downside to taking your fitness resolutions online," but beyond the practical issues lie a constellation of central ethical concerns.

These concerns aren't directly primarily at the use of any particular software or hardware. Instead, they should cause us to pause as we think about a possible future that significantly increases the scale and effectiveness of willpower-enhancing apps. Let's call this hypothetical future Digital Willpower World and characterize the ethical traps we're about to discuss as potential general pitfalls. Whether they actually have teeth will depend on how technology and practice develop, details that are not considered here.

Presented by

Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology.

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