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DL Seminar | Outsourcing Self-Regulatory Energy to Technology: What is the impact?

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Bradley Wise | MS Connective Media Student, Cornell Tech


Illustration by Gary Zamchick

DL Seminar Speaker Natasha Dow Schüll

Extensive psychology and neuroscience research has focused on how humans make decisions. Specifically, when we are tapped for cognitive resources or are repeatedly made to override impulses, we experience a phenomenon that many in the social sciences call ego depletion. Ego depletion is a result of our losing our capacity to control or “self-regulate” our behaviors and desires effectively. While much literature in the social sciences focuses on how one can make “the self” better at self-regulating their own behaviors and combatting ego depletion, Natasha Schüll discusses the impact of technology and wearables on the way we might augment our self-regulatory capacity by “outsourcing” it. In other words, instead of training ourselves to be better self-regulators, Natasha discusses the many ways companies now use wearables or other technology to outsource some of that self-regulatory energy. With the rise of smartwatches, Internet of Things, and many other devices, it raises many interesting question on how we should use technology in our daily lives.


In Natasha Schüll’s talk “Lifestyle Algorithm,” she discusses the role of technology on our decision making, the history of self-help technology, and its future. Today, companies are building apps and wearables that literally regulate trivial modes of behavior to ensure that we are living the healthiest life possible. Many of these self-regulation apps claim to help people with activities as exercising, sitting, posture, eating, and even breathing. For example, a piece of technology called the HapiFork is using an actual fork to regulate how fast we eat by chiming or vibrating when we eat too quickly. Another example Natasha gave in her talk is the Mother Sense application, which literally gives people the power to make any household item a smart object.


While many of these apps currently display data to its users and give people the power to “quantify the self,” the results of giving people data has had less than stellar effects on people’s behaviors. Apps are now starting to learn when we are doing unsavory behaviors and will automatically tell us when we need in a form of “frictionless guidance.” In fact, Natasha mentions that many companies are now following personality guidelines to give people using these wearables the most personal and frictionless guidance possible. This is all in the name of helping us better regulate our lives, our health, and our decision-making. Or is it?


In my opinion, the implication for these types of systems on health technology is tremendous. These technologies can be used for people who might not have the resources or abilities to help themselves. For example, I can see the positive impact of using wearables or sensors for people battling addiction or gambling problems. However, the question I find myself asking is how this impacts non-clinical populations. Specifically, what is the long-term impact of these devices on our abilities to self-regulate our own behavior? Are these technologies really augmenting self-regulation and helping us make healthy decisions, or is this outsourcing of self-regulatory technology stunting our own willpower?


It is inevitable and not surprising that we are building toward a future where improvement apps become a part of our daily lives. However, it would be interesting to have a discussion on how these technologies impact our sense of self and what things we can think about when making these devices in the future.


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Jessie G. Taft

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