Ideas for Gadgets That Completely Undermine Themselves

On the tech/innovation site FastCoExist, a reviewer trying out a new device that is meant to help you focus reported on the device’s response as she became immersed in her work: “ ‘You’re getting in the zone,’ the app tells me.”

OK, cool. But, uh, wouldn’t getting a message that you’re “in the zone” kind of distract you from “the zone”? In other words, doesn’t the whole idea of an app telling you that you are focused actually undermine your focus?

One might think so. But maybe that’s a small-minded response. Maybe the real epiphany here is that there are many ways that technology can prompt, prod, and reward us for our successful efforts to avoid distraction, to focus, and to be mindful and relaxed. Maybe there are more opportunities for technology to insert itself into our lives when we have freed ourselves from technology.

A few possibilities:

Have trouble falling asleep? How about a gizmo that monitors your bodily state as you attempt to catch your forty winks: When it detects that you are just about to fall asleep, it tells you — by way of a customizable reward sound blasted out by your phone. The more times you almost fall asleep, the more reward sounds you get, along with digital trophies that illuminate your phone. Sleep: gamified! 

Overly attached to checking your phone? Lots of us are — whether you’re a parent striving to spend 15 minutes with your children without checking the tiny screen, or you’re just trying to make it through dinner with friends without monitoring the “likes” on your latest Instagram masterpiece. Maybe what you need is an insistent series of alerts that reward you for not looking at your gizmo.

Consider, for instance, an app that keeps track of your phone’s idle moments. If you haven’t touched it for 10 minutes, you’ll get a prompt congratulating you for your achievement. Then you just have to tap your phone to log in and register this accomplishment. You’ll get a custom digital badge (“Phone Ignorer”), automatically tweeted to your followers. Thus your social network will know what a great job you are doing being unplugged!

Looking for a quiet place to get away from it all? You need an app that responds to ambient noise: If it detects what amounts to silence, it alerts you to the quiet-ness of your environment by way of a persistent buzz, gradually ascending in volume.

Worried about bothering everyone else? With geolocation technology, it should be relatively easy to devise an app that detects when you’re entering, say, a library, or even a funeral home, or any place that really demands respectful silence. You don’t want your Bon Jovi ringtone to interrupt that! So when this app detects that you’re in such a place, it emits a piercing siren, ensuring that you remember to mute your device.

Weary of pointless text messages? We all are. So here’s a new service that could be added to any chat platform: If it’s been half an hour since anybody bugged you with an irritating yet insistent message … you’ll get a message! Something along these lines: “Awesome news: Nobody has distracted you with a text lately. Bet u r in the zone!”

Trying to overcome email overload? Suppose you reach that mythical land of “Inbox Zero,” actually clearing your entire inbox. That’s an achievement that deserves recognition! This service, upon detecting your empty inbox, will immediately send you a congratulatory email, and a note to everyone in your address book, encouraging your friends to do the same.

Plagued by workaday health distractions? Here’s another body-monitoring technology idea: a wearable device that detects when, let’s say, you have a headache. When that happens, the connected app erupts with the latest Skrillex single — alerting you that you have a headache!

“Skrillex here! Looks like you’ve got a bit of a pain in the old noggin!”

The app could then automatically order you Excedrin and notify you as to the delivery boy’s location via sonar blips. 

Find it hard to concentrate on long articles or books? Imagine a technology layered over a Web browser or ebook reader that tracked your eye movements to gauge your reading. Whenever it detects that you’ve managed to get through three or four paragraphs, a window pops up: “You are really getting into it! Keep going!”

Addicted to Facebook? I know that sounds weird. But lots of people check Facebook compulsively, throughout the day — and not a few of them would probably prefer not to. So this app would monitor Facebook abstinence — and reward it with regular updates. “Great job ignoring Facebook! Nine of your friends have posted 17 status updates in the past 10 minutes, and one of them already has 38 likes! Congrats on your fortitude in tuning out what everyone else is talking about!”

 Feeling stressed out? This wearable stress detector would measure your stress levels and consistently — say, every 15 seconds — tell you how you’re doing. “You’re not stressed out! You’re not stressed out! You’re not stressed out! Uh-oh! You’re stressed out!”


What other technologies could be developed that completely and totally defeat their own beneficent purposes? We’re not the experts here. But we’re confident that our nation’s innovators will figure something out.

That is, if they can just stay in the zone.