How ICTs help resist temptation
Many people, including myself, can resist everything except temptation. Almost 120 years after Oscar Wilde coined this famous aphorism, we still find it difficult to contain our cravings for drink, food and some new vices like Internet addiction and compulsive messaging. Information and communication technologies, ICTs, have the potential to equally worsen and improve our addictive behaviour. As ICTs become ever more pervasive, their potential to support us in controlling ourselves is proportionately increasing.
An app for every vice
There is almost no vice, for which ingenious programmers have not developed a self-monitoring application yet. Just look at the plethora of respective mobile apps for iPhone and Android devices. There is for example “Don’t Dial!”, the app to prevent happy drinkers from making themselves unhappy by calling their boss during a booze. Another one is GlobeTipping, to prevent the over-generous tourist from giving too high tips. Controlling expenses is also the purpose of the Shopulator app, which keeps track of expenses. Those, who like a drink and still want to drive, will appreciate the “Can I Drive Yet?” app, which tells you whether you can still have another drink, before you drive home. This app, however, requires that you remember to enter your drinks correctly, which could become increasingly difficult the more drinks you have.
Blow before you drive
So, to be sure you don’t drive when you are drunk requires a more sophisticated application, namely a breath alcohol ignition interlock device. This is basically a breathalyzer hooked up to a motor vehicle’s dashboard. Before the vehicle’s motor can be started, the
driver first must exhale into the device: if the measured breath-alcohol concentration is above the programmed blood alcohol concentration, the device prevents the engine from being started. A number of countries are requiring the ignition interlock as a penalty for drivers convicted of driving under the influence, especially repeat offenders. Some politicians in Sweden, Japan, Canada, the United States and other countries have called for such devices to be installed as standard equipment in all motor vehicles sold.
Less intrusive solutions than the ignition interlock device are currently being developed. The next-generation of alcohol detectors use sensors that measure blood alcohol content either by analysing the driver’s breath or through the skin, using sophisticated touch-based sensors placed, for example, on the steering wheel and door locks.
Sensor-based systems are also the basis for numerous personal health applications. You can measure a wide set of vital functions and provide instant feedback. The earliest example of this in the consumer section have been personal heart rate monitors, which started to be commercially available from 1983 on. With current technologies, the scope of possible applications for health and lifestyle have vastly grown beyond measuring your pulse. Combining today’s smart phones with sensors will enable advanced forms of monitoring your diet or your stress level and prompt you to take action – “Don’t touch this cheese cake!”; “Take a deep breath!”. Add accelerometers and GPS to this, and you can monitor practically all human activities and get advice on desirable behaviour. A drinker heading for the next pub would get an alert as soon as he is within 100 meters of the bar.
This type of biofeedback offers the opportunity to increase self control and encourage desirable behaviours, like drinking less, eating less, stop smoking cigarettes or overcoming anxiety. However, the constant biofeedback itself could create new anxieties. Getting told to relax and breath deeply when the sensors register increased sweat and faster breathing might not always have the desired affect.
The other important aspect to consider is where ICT-enabled self-control affects human freedom and self-determination. Changing behaviour via biofeedback and conditioning is not new. Since the 1950s, when B.F. Skinner developed behaviourism and promoted the engineering of human behaviour, a fundamental debate has been going on. What are the limits of manipulating human behaviour through technology? Today’s technologies allow to improve the behaviour of people, who would not have the self-discipline to eat less, drink less and exercise more with the more or less unobtrusive nudging by caring applications that can replace moms, cops, and doctors at the same time.
The potential of technologies for (self-)control of human behaviours is vast and has not yet been fully exploited. New applications will be invented that can support good social and health-related behaviour. The question we have to ask ourselves is, how much good individual behaviour is good for our society, bearing in mind a thought-provoking aphorism by Henry S. Haskins: “Good behaviour is the last refuge of mediocrity.”