4/6 Digital Willpower

Today we're discussing "Why It's OK to Let Apps Make You a Better Person" an article from the Atlantic.

What is willpower?
Is there a difference between willpower and discipline?
When you hear these words: willpower/discipline, what do you feel?
Do you struggle with willpower/discipline?

"Humans have always found creative ways to manipulate behavior through technology--whips, speed bumps, and alarm clocks all spring to mind."

"Individuals are turning ever more aspects of their lives into managerial problems that require technological solutions. "

"Individuals (and, as we'll see, philosophers) are growing increasingly realistic about how limited their decision-making skills and resolve are."
Do you think this is true?

"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."

Let's discuss these apps:

How does this app work, in plain english?
Is there any aspect of this app that makes you uncomfortable?
Is there any aspect of this app that feels good to you?
Why do you suppose it's effective?
Would you use it?

GymPact is an iPhone app that combines GPS tracking and financial rewards/penalties to motivate people to go the gym.
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.

myfitnesspal 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.

ToneCheck is the emotional analogue to a spell checking tool. It's for hotheads who can't resist sending flaming e-mails. 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.

StayFocused is a motivational tool for "giving your will power a break." 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.

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!

Criticisms of "Digital Willpower"
Resolute Choosers
"Mature adults should strive to develop internal willpower strong enough to avoid external temptations, whatever they are, and wherever they are encountered. " This type of person is called a "resolute chooser" in the article. In other words, if you don't have willpower, you're just weak.
Are drug addicts just weak people?
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.

Fragmented Selves
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.
When it comes to digital willpower, we should be on our guard to avoid confusing situational with integrated behaviors.

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.
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?

Is willpower actually up to the individual?
"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."

The 'default' when applied to willpower:
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.