Data Devices to Help Alter Behavior

By Singer, Natasha | International New York Times, April 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

Data Devices to Help Alter Behavior


Singer, Natasha, International New York Times


New self-monitoring devices are less about data-gathering than behavior change.

The bookshelves in Natasha Dow Schull's office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are punctuated here and there with kitchen timers: a windup orange plastic device, an egg-shaped stainless steel mechanical timer, a digital hourglass with falling pixels in lieu of sand.

At one time, Ms. Schull, an associate professor at M.I.T.'s program in science, technology and society, employed these relics to track her time while she was writing her doctoral dissertation.

Since then, she has graduated to a more controlling productivity aid. She uses software with the Orwellian name of Freedom to temporarily block Internet access on her computer. It forces her to stop browsing and concentrate on her writing.

"These are little shields against the temptations and fallibilities of being human," Ms. Schull said when I visited her recently to discuss her research on digital self-monitoring devices.

Ms. Schull, a cultural anthropologist, studies the relationship between people and technology. And her own progression from managing her writing schedule with an hourglass to ceding control to an Internet lockdown app parallels the technological shifts she is exploring in a book due to be released next year.

Titled "Keeping Track: Personal Informatics, Self-Regulation and the Data-Driven Life," the book charts the evolution of contemporary digital self-tracking. The phenomenon originated in 2009 as a do-it- yourself community called Quantified Self, in which tech enthusiasts and other data obsessives analyzed details from their daily lives with the aim of gaining insights into their own behavior patterns. The idea was to increase self-knowledge and autonomy through numbers.

Consumer electronics developers -- or "quantrepreneurs" in industry parlance -- soon took up this idea, expanding the market for fitness activity and health trackers. Suddenly, it was easy for consumers to monitor the number of steps they took every day, the calories they ingested and the hours they slept.

But now that retailers like Best Buy and Amazon are dedicating extensive real estate to wearable wellness gadgets, Ms. Schull has noticed another trend: devices whose primary function is less to enlighten users with information than to prod them to change.

This new category of nudging technology, she says, includes "hydration reminder" apps like Waterlogged that exhort people to increase their water consumption; the HAPIfork, a utensil that vibrates and turns on a light indicator when people eat too quickly; and Thync, "neurosignaling" headgear that delivers electrical pulses intended to energize or relax people.

"There is this dumbing-down, which assumes people do not want the data, they just want the devices to help them," Ms. Schull observes. "It is not really about self-knowledge anymore. It's the nurselike application of technology."

In the move to the mass market, it seems, the quantified self has become the infantilized self.

Industry executives, however, argue that devices that simply collect and display numerical information about people's behavior are unlikely to spur them to make durable changes in their habits. People typically use fitness activity trackers for only four to six months and then lose interest, says Dr. Nick van Terheyden, the chief medical information officer of Nuance Communications, a language-processing and voice technology company.

"Technology that is static, that is passive, doesn't persist and doesn't engage you," Dr. …

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