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.

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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.

The first concern about Digital Willpower World is that it is antithetical to the ideal of " resolute choice." Some may find the norm overly perfectionist, Spartan, or puritanical. However, it is not uncommon for folks to defend the idea that mature adults should strive to develop internal willpower strong enough to avoid external temptations, whatever they are, and wherever they are encountered. These admirers of self-discipline believe that, for example, we should simply not be rude by ignoring those we are spending face-to-face time with, no matter how alluring it becomes to check email on our portable devices.

In part, resolute choosing is prized out of concern for consistency, as some worry that lapse of willpower in any context indicates a generally weak character. The person who can't stop texting during dinner is presumed to lack self-control. He could be easily swayed by unruly desires and too readily disposed to avoid moderation or worse in other circumstances. In short, resolute choosers see themselves as strong in spirit and capable of consistently being virtuous. They construe backsliders as weak willed slaves to impulse and immediate gratification. If they wore a group t-shirt, the slogan would be: "Quit anything and you're a quitter."

The second and third concerns about Digital Willpower World can be extrapolated from ideas developed by Luc Bovens , a Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics. They are the problems of "fragmented selves" and "infantilism."

Fragmented selves behave one way while under the influence of digital willpower, but another when making decisions without such assistance. In these instances, inconsistent preferences are exhibited and we risk underestimating the extent of our technological dependency. For example, under current conditions, we might eat healthy when using myfitnesspal, but poorly when we forget our smartphone at home. Acknowledging this risk does not entail denying that repeated exposure to willpower-enhancing technology can engender positive new habits and correlative preference shifts. It simply means that when it comes to digital willpower, we should be on our guard to avoid confusing situational with integrated behaviors.

In Digital Willpower World, the problem of fragmented selves doesn't appear to be an issue. After all, inhabitants are constantly plugged in to willpower-enhancing devices. They no longer toggle between enhanced and unenhanced lives. Bracketing the question of what would happen to such folks if the support systems crashed--as that issue applies to so many things--the problem of inauthenticity, a staple of the neuroethics debates, might arise. People might start asking themselves: Has the problem of fragmentation gone away only because devices are choreographing our behavior so powerfully that we are no longer in touch with our so-called real selves -- the selves who used to exist before Digital Willpower World was formed? Consider a contemporary analogue to this problem. Right now, people can use an app that automatically sends happy birthday wishes to Facebook friends. Although this service bypasses the problem of forgetfulness, its use raises questions about sincerity and thoughtfulness.

Infantalized subjects are morally lazy, quick to have others take responsibility for their welfare. They do not view the capacity to assume personal responsibility for selecting means and ends as a fundamental life goal that validates the effort required to remain committed to the ongoing project of maintaining willpower and self-control. Even positive reviews of Freedom are tinged with elements of concern over self-infantalization and the loss of resolute choosing. Some try to cope by pointing to social norms, convincing themselves that if others are doing it, it can't be too bad: "Yes, the whole thing makes me feel infantile and weak. Like a tween whose parents have put some kind of monitoring software on my computer; except in this case I am both tween and parent. But I'm not alone. In other corners of the Internet universe, people are turning to programs like RescueTime and MeeTimer to monitor, track and limit the time they spend on Twitter, and something called LeechBlock to prevent themselves from even going to certain sites for certain times of the day."

Yet another concern about Digital Willpower World comes from Michael Sandel's Atlantic essay, "The Case Against Perfection." He notes that technological enhancement can diminish people's sense of achievement when their accomplishments become attributable to human-technology systems and not an individual's use of human agency. If Noreen sticks to her ideal eating and exercise regime, who deserves praise? Can we still say she does, or does it make more sense to say it is a Noreen-myfitnesspal system? A critic might respond that this question is meaningless because when Noreen uses the app she has to exert much more willpower than if she had gastric bypass surgery. The surgery would eliminate agency by shrinking the stomach and causing food to bypass part of the small intestine. By contrast, Noreen enhanced by "myfitnesspal" still has to make many choices on her own. True enough! But this example only shifts the comparison. It doesn't deal with the fundamental worry.

Albert Borgmann, a pre-eminent philosopher of technology, has his own objection to DWW. In Real American Ethics, Borgmann does some forecasting of his own and considers a development that we can imagine would be central to Digital Willpower World: smart homes --dwellings designed to not only sense but, more importantly, to anticipate user desires. Such places would be stocked with smart appliances, including refrigerators that keep stock of depleted items and communicate directly with grocery stores to initiate purchase of replacements. Borgmann worries that this environment, which habituates us to be on auto-pilot and delegate deliberation, threatens to harm the powers of reason, the most central component of willpower (according to the rationalist tradition). In living here, Borgmann fears, "we will slide from housekeeping to being kept by our house."

Borgmann articulates a final concern that applies to Digital Willpower World. In several books, including Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, he expresses concern about technologies that seem to enhance willpower but only do so through distraction. Borgmann's paradigmatic example of the non-distracted, focally centered person is a serious runner. This person finds the practice of running maximally fulfilling, replete with the rewarding "flow" that can only comes when mind/body and means/ends are unified, while skill gets pushed to the limit.

Thinking about this example reminded me of a time a friend and I went for a long run. When I pound the pavement, I need to use music as an enhancement. Without a soundtrack containing the right number of beats per minute, I tire easily. But because Ann is running purist, we tried it her way. The result: I thought I was going to die.

Willpower Revisited

However these concerns strike you, there's an important wrinkle that can be touched upon. Perhaps the very conception of a resolute self was flawed. What if, as psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests, willpower is more "staple of folk psychology" than real way of thinking about our brain processes?

I posed this question to Jesús Aguilar, a colleague who specializes in philosophy of action. He noted that we could make sense of Baumeister's suggestion by considering some of the latest philosophical approaches to the will that are heavily indebted to ongoing empirical research. These novel approaches suggest the will is a flexible mesh of different capacities and cognitive mechanisms that can expand and contract, depending on the agent's particular setting and needs. Contrary to the traditional view that identifies the unified and cognitively transparent self as the source of willed actions, the new picture embraces a rather diffused, extended, and opaque self who is often guided by irrational trains of thought. What actually keeps the self and its will together are the given boundaries offered by biology, a coherent self narrative created by shared memories and experiences, and society. If this view of the will as an expanding and contracting system with porous and dynamic boundaries is correct, then it might seem that the new motivating technologies and devices can only increase our reach and further empower our willing selves.

While Aguilar didn't commit to this view, Shaun Gallagher, philosophy professor and editor of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, is sympathetic to viewing the will as contextually located. "It's a mistake to think of the will as some interior faculty that belongs to an individual--the thing that pushes the motor control processes that cause my action," Gallagher says. "Rather, the will is both embodied and embedded: social and physical environment enhance or impoverish our ability to decide and carry out our intentions; often our intentions themselves are shaped by social and physical aspects of the environment."

Applying this logic to the cases at issue here, Gallagher notes:

It makes perfect sense to think of the will as something that can be supported or assisted by technology. Technologies, like environments and institutions can facilitate action or block it. Imagine I have the inclination to go to a concert. If I can get my ticket by pressing some buttons on my iPhone, I find myself going to the concert. If I have to fill out an application form and carry it to a location several miles away and wait in line to pick up my ticket, then forget it.

What should we make of Gallagher's interpretation of willpower? I'm conflicted. While I worry about the ethical complications of digital-willpower enhancements, it's clear that in the United States, traditional notions of willpower have failed in some key regards, especially in the health arena. New approaches to willpower, whatever their pitfalls, may provide a way forward. Perhaps the best way forward is to put a digital spin on the Socratic dictum of knowing myself and submit to the new freedom: the freedom of consuming digital willpower to guide me past the sirens.

Image: Shaun Foster.