Fiona McCade: Pavlok is neither here nor there

Can an app that punishes you for coveting doughnuts be a good thing? Picture: Getty
Can an app that punishes you for coveting doughnuts be a good thing? Picture: Getty
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Gizmo that punishes to change habits won’t get a ringing endorsement from this lolcat lover, writes Fiona McCade

Once upon a Christmas, my husband bought me a Belly Buzzer. Essentially, it was an elasticated belt (well, it needed to be stretchy, given how much I eat during the festive season) with a tiny, electronic box attached to it.

The idea was that whenever the wearer allowed their belly to sag, the box would make a loud buzzing noise and they would be shocked into pulling their stomach muscles back in. I only wore it once, because everybody at the all-you-can-eat buffet kept wondering why the whole room was reverberating every time I went up for more.

I soon decided that I’d rather be ashamed of my waistline than allow a glorified belt-buckle to tell me what to do.

Given that I refused to be brow-beaten by a battery-powered Big Brother, I’m not sure whether I’ll get on with Pavlok, an invention due to be rolled out next year, that promises to help anybody “form good habits, break bad habits, and stick to your commitments, using any means necessary”. Pavlok is a wristband that uses mobile phone technology, apps and GPS to find out what you’re doing and, if it’s bad, stop it.

For example, if you want to stop eating fast food, Pavlok will find out when you’re entering a McDonald’s and punish you for it.

The “any means necessary” include Pavlok issuing alarming noises, vibrations and 255-volt electric shocks, as well as other punishments, such as financial penalties and embarrassing you on social media, to force you towards fulfilling your goals.

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Pavlok’s inventor, Maneesh Sethi, cured his Facebook addiction by hiring someone to slap him in the face every time he used it. In one month, his productivity at work quadrupled, so he became convinced that his Pavlovian experiment – use Facebook, experience pain, stop using Facebook – was worth trying to replicate.

I suppose this technology raises human beings one small step above Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov always rang a bell before feeding his dogs, until the dogs began to associate the bell with food. Very soon, the mere sound of the bell was enough to cause them to salivate.

At least with Pavlok, the user is ringing their own bell, or paying someone else to ring it for them, so there is some self-control involved. You decide what behaviour you want to modify or eliminate, and you also decide on the level of chastisement you receive if you don’t hit your targets.

I admit, I need this sort of help.

How many years have I frittered away, idling on the internet, while my Great British novel goes unwritten? I could do with a gadget that electrifies me until I look like Eraserhead, scares me off browsing forever, and sets me firmly on the path to a Pulitzer Prize.

The problem is that I’m not a dog. Nor am I a masochist. Nor can I bring myself to submit to a scenario in which I pay to hand over my willpower to someone else and say: “Here, use it for me, because I’m hopeless, I am.”

Please, be kind and don’t point out that I am certainly hopeless, or I would have achieved a lot more of my life-goals by now.

(I wonder if Pavlok has an app for reaching the North Pole? I could go for that, although I’d probably just try to fool it by putting the wristband in the fridge.)

Perhaps, if you know for sure that you’re ruining or wasting your life, it doesn’t matter how you get back on track, so long as you do. I suppose using Pavlok represents a solid commitment to change, albeit a lazy and weird one.

It’s also worth noting that it takes a certain amount of willpower to sign up for Pavlok. You have to be determined and prepared to take the consequences. It’s really just taking the face-slapping one stage further and offering people the opportunity to have a virtual gangster rough them up every time they fail to go to the gym, or cross the threshold of Krispy Kreme.

It’s certainly a cheaper option than hiring Ray Winstone to come around your house with a bunch of heavies, shouting: “You schtewpid cahhh! You bin at the donuts again, entcha? Well, leave it AAHT!”

Perhaps the only way Pavlok would change my life is if I programmed it to send £5 of my own, hard-earned cash to Simon Cowell every time I click on a lolcat. I could never allow such a horrific situation to happen, so I’d have no choice but to use the time I would have spent laughing at cats on the internet to work on becoming a more productive member of society.

But I can’t even wear a watch, so the thought of being shackled with a wristband that tells me what to do is more than I can bear. Since I couldn’t abandon my Pavlok as easily as I dumped my Belly Buzzer, I’d resent it. I’d go to the gym, but spend all my time in the café eating buns, just to feel like I’d won.

Pavlok may be the push some people need, but I’d much rather say “I did it my way” than “I’ll do it your way, and feel free to hurt me while you’re at it”. Besides, what if this technology really catches on? Will the whole population eventually be issued with one? Will we find ourselves getting massive electric shocks if our tax returns are late, or we don’t vote?

I don’t want to be a Pavlovian dog. I prefer Schrödinger’s cat, so I’m going to invent the Schrödibox.

It’ll be a pocket-size cube that beeps at crucial moments, like whenever you’re stuffing yourself with food and somebody asks: “Aren’t you on a diet?”

The beep reminds you to say: “Until I answer that, I am simultaneously on a diet and not on a diet.”

Then back you go to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

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