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Electric Shock Bracelets Are the Natural Next Step for Wearables That Control Us

After all, doesn't fitness tech exist solely to get you to change your behavior?
Image: Pavlok

Technology changes us; it's not just a tool, it's also a site of negotiation for our identities, our behaviours, our values, and potentially even our physical brains. Pavlok, a wearable device that shocks you if it catches you on Facebook or sitting on the couch scarfing chips instead of hitting the gym, makes this complicated relationship viscerally explicit.

As its name suggests, Pavlok is an inhuman, data-driven, 21st century version of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian psychologist who discovered that behaviour can be modified through reward and punishment. Pavlok takes this idea and runs with it, as in, you'd better go for a run or it'll shock you.

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The device can be worn like a bracelet and, according to its creators, programmed to beep or shock you when you do things like enter a McDonald's. The idea is that eventually it won't need to shock you to make you get with the program; you'll learn to do it on your own.

Pavlok has an accelerometer to track your movements, haptic sensors so it knows when you're wearing it, and, of course, a "shock circuit," which does exactly what it sounds like.

Pavlok appears dystopian to an almost satirical degree, but it's real, and people apparently love it telling them what to do. Or, at least, they're interested in the idea enough to collectively pledge basically all of the $50,000 goal within two days of the start of its Indiegogo campaign.

The idea of having Ivan Pavlov himself gleefully electrocute you until you follow orders is probably an uncomfortable one for most people, but as soon as the concept is transubstantiated into a piece of wearable tech, it becomes palatable.

It seems insane, doesn't it? Also seemingly insane: The electric condom that shocks its wearer. It should be so obvious that these things are crazy, and yet some people are genuinely eager to see it become a reality. Why? Pavlok itself is a particularly intriguing technological artifact through which we can address this question.

In The Question Concerning Technology, Martin Heidegger characterized our relationship with technology as an Enframing, a set of relations, or a condition, within which we are placed. Instrumentality, the desire to merely use technology as a tool and master it, obfuscates its true essence. If this is true, then what Pavlok says about our place in this relationship is truly unsettling. In the circuit of data-driven technological control—the "shock circuit"—who are we, really? Masters only in the strictest, most abstract sense, to be sure.

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Wearable health technologies that monitors our activity and provides us with an encompassing view of ourselves, or at least a set of data that represent "us," certainly falls into Heidegger's definition of technology, not least because they constitute a feedback loop of information and action regarding our physical bodies. It doesn't get much more intimate than that. We tell them to regulate us, and they do, and we dutifully obey in turn.

Not all wearables shock us, as Pavlok does, but Pavlok is only the most explicit manifestation of what all of these technologies essentially do: Force us to regulate ourselves on an unprecedented level, and in a way that is both totally individual and yet seems inhuman.

We love data; we obsess over it, and sometimes we even fear it. Or, at least, we fear it getting into the wrong hands. Data knows us. Seemingly insignificant points of data can be organized to reveal who we are, where we go, and what we do. And so, data knows best.

Or, at least, that's the premise underlying data-driven physical regulation. The ambiguity of human medicine is replaced by the calculated perfection of a well-organized data set, and it will make us just as perfect, eventually, if we listen to it.

The seemingly obvious question of why we even need a product like Pavlok in the first place reveals how fully we've given ourselves over to this particular set of technological relations. Do we really need a device to shock us into having some willpower, that eminently human wellspring of action? Regardless of the answer to that question, should we desire it?

We've been overtaken by what Evgeny Morozov dubbed "technological solutionism" in his book To Save Everything, Click Here. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail—that old cliche holds true, even when the tool in question isn't a hammer, but a vast and ever-expanding data set.

Surely Pavlok will, and does, have its fair share of detractors and bemused critics. But Pavlok itself is not what is necessarily at issue here, for really, in the end, it's merely a curiosity. The condition that it reveals is of far greater importance. Even if you're not wearing a high tech shock collar like a millennial version of Ivan Pavlov's dog when using Apple's new mobile health platform, for example, is the relationship really any different?