Technologies, although created by humans, may gain autonomy over society as they mature. This theory of ‘technological momentum,’ communicated by Thomas Hughes, gains resonance when considering the future implications of apps designed to dictate basic human actions. While apps such as GymPact and Snooze Minutes may be rationalized as insignificant reminders to work out or wake up, it is crucial to consider the repercussions of lock-in with such technologies. In the case of both of these apps, we observe how necessity, rather than science, proved to be the reason for, or “mother” of, invention.
A pair of Harvard graduates, recognizing that people dislike losing money more than they appreciate financial gain, created GymPact to coerce people into exercising more often and more regularly. The app involves a two fold weekly commitment: 1) setting a target number of gym visits and 2) agreeing to a fine ranging from five to fifty dollars for each skipped gym visit. The actual reward for exercising is very small, about fifty cents, which rarely incentivizes cheating yet provides satisfaction to honest users. GymPact has over 135,000 users with a ninety-two percent effectiveness rate of inspiring exercise. The 2012 Pew Internet and American Life Project report found that approximately one-fifth of all smartphone users in the US have downloaded a fitness app since 2010 while a Mayo Clinic study highlighted how weight-loss program participants proved more likely to exercise and lose more weight with financial incentives.
There are a multitude of apps designed to wake us up in the morning. iSleepin awakens users with a series of mini-games while Wake N Shake requires users to feverishly shake their devices in order to stop the alarm. The app that caught my attention, however, was Snooze Minutes. Besides featuring a digital clock face with the weather, the ability to adjust screen brightness with the slide of a finger, and the capacity to share wake progress on Facebook and Twitter, Snooze Minutes monetarily penalizes its users to ensure they wake up on time. When the alarm sounds, snooze minutes drain until the user stops the alarm. Simply pressing a button doesn’t silence it; users must trace their finger in a specified pattern to prove they are awake. After reaching seventy snooze minutes, users must buy more minutes to continue snoozing. Thirty snooze minutes cost $0.99, but there are packages of 333 snooze minutes with the price tag of $9.99. Alternatively, users can wait for their snooze minutes to recharge every twenty-four hours, making the option of buying snooze minutes even more ridiculous.
What is the greater significance of these apps?
The popularity of apps such as GymPact and Snooze Minutes demonstrate how users are not simply selecting technologies that will fulfill their needs, but rather, choosing technologies that will control their actions. Aware that these apps are value laden, users appreciate having their actions dictated in specific ways at certain times. GymPact and Snooze Minutes serve as scripts that prescribe certain behaviors while proscribing others. Using the example of a door-closer, Bruno Latour underscores how technology proves relentlessly moral, a quality that humans are transitioning to rely upon. By extending this example to apps, we observe how user reliance stems from the acknowledgement and acceptance of themselves as fallible. While we are often suspicious of technologies that seek to control us, GymPact and Snooze Minutes exemplify how users want technology to compensate for their own fallibilities, given that they no longer trust themselves to make decisions in their best interest.
As technology advances, it is relevant to consider how the increasing power of technology influences our daily decisions. Will humans blindly walk toward their own extinction by allowing technologies to dictate everything? Possibly. When innovators are focused on their own technological progressions, there lacks someone to survey how the combination of these advances impacts the world as a whole. The sequence of small, individually sensible advances may lead to an accumulation of powerful technologies that pose great dangers to our ability to control technology as well as ourselves. GymPact and Snooze Minutes are small-scale examples of technologies that may, in the future, advance to a point where users are unable to exercise or wake up without technological enforcement. We may ultimately find ourselves at the mercy of technology, not because we ceded control or the machines seized power, but because machine-made decisions inspire better results.
Do we subscribe to apps that control our basic human actions? Yes. Do we confront these technologies as problems? Not yet, an answer which may prove dangerous. While GymPact and Snooze Minutes may appear to be productive influences in our lives at present, we cannot fall into lock-in with these technologies. In adopting apps that dictate when to exercise or wake up, we are allowing technology to gain control, a concession that may extend into other aspects of our lives. The outcome of path dependence is irreversible, therefore, we must find a way to control and govern these technologies before they become too deeply entrenched.