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The Future Is Here to Nag You: The Rise of the Nanny Gadget

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
March 5, 2014

The Future Is Here to Nag You: The Rise of the Nanny Gadget

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
March 5, 2014

Are you brushing your teeth properly? Are you eating too fast? Are you slouching?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then perhaps you should consider a trendy new type of gadget that I’m going to call the nanny device. These are devices that nag you about these and your many other personal failures. (No offense.)

These nanny devices seem to have proliferated in the past year. The forthcoming Oral-B smart toothbrush may be “disappointed in your brushing,” as Yahoo Tech reported from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week: The gizmo hooks up to an app and provides “real-time feedback” on your oral hygiene skills, joining a similar smart toothbrush from Kolibree. Last year, the smart HAPIfork attracted a wave of attention with its promise to vibrate if it catches you eating at an unhealthy pace. A company called Lumo offers a belt-like contraption that zings you into straightening your spine and has been pre-selling a clip-on device that similarly prods you to “bring your shoulders back and lift your head.” Sensoria Fitness Socks strive to straighten out your running gait.

If that’s still not enough high-tech mothering for you, you can preorder a more all-purpose system, reportedly due out soon, that promises to let you equip a variety of household objects with sensors, endowing them with the power to pester you to take your vitamins, drink more water and close the refrigerator.

This product is called … Mother.

Mother and its sensors.

Perhaps the future will yet bring traitorous machines we fear, like HAL, or seductive technology we literally fall in love with, as in Her. But what seems to be happening now is an onslaught of technically sophisticated nagging.

It may sound like I’m making fun of nag tech — and, well, yeah, OK, I guess I am. But I may as well just confess: I’ve preordered the newer Lumo device. I have terrible posture, and I can’t quite see myself sitting around with a book balanced on my head at this point in my life. So maybe this device can straighten me up?

In any case, the nanny avalanche is partly a logical result of converging tech trends: the so-called “quantified self” movement, the popularity of various fitness-tracking apps and gadgets, and the future of communicative, WiFi-connected devices promised by the much-ballyhooed Internet of Things (usefully explained by my colleague Dan Tynan here).

The Kolibree toothbrush, which will coach you as you brush. 

Clearly, the techno-nanny supply is here. But what about demand? Do we really want data-driven machine nagging in our lives?

“We all want a life coach to a certain extent,” suggests Christian DeFeo, innovation manager and futurist at tech firm Newark Element14. Sometimes, being coached by an object might be “better than dealing with another person.” For starters, the gadgets promise factual accuracy — maybe your mom was right about your slouching; maybe she wasn’t. I’m not going to be able to bicker with that Lumo gadget.

On the other hand, DeFeo adds, technology is also far easier to ignore if you just don’t feel like being hectored: Unlike your mom, these things tend to have an on/off switch. And no doubt some buyers of magic diet-control forks and judgmental toothbrushes will be roughly analogous to people who buy a gym membership and never go. DeFeo speculates that other nanny tech users will be those among us who are already conscientious in our behaviors — a tool, basically, for positive reinforcement, or just self-congratulation.

In other words, Nagging 2.0 is also a function of an American tendency that is not new at all — the self-improvement urge, which has sold countless unread books and inspired endless forgotten motivational talks.

Translating this bottomless desire for shortcuts to a better life into taking orders from a toothbrush raises a familiar debate: Is technology making us smarter and better — or simply more dependent on technology? When we modify our behavior to accommodate our devices — speaking in a way Siri understands, crafting social media expression for maximum shareability — it arguably raises questions about free will itself, and whether our new tools work for us, or the other way around. DeFeo points to a scenario in which a smartcar responds to what it deems your poor driving habits by causing your insurance rates to go up. The most pessimistic critique of nanny objects accuses them of amounting to “social engineering disguised as product engineering.”

But … really? I think this category should be parsed differently. What’s actually fascinating about the technology of nagging is that it involves explicitly seeking a tool to route around situations where free will has failed. I’ve chastised myself about my slouchiness for decades; if this gizmo can help me, I’m for it! And if it gets on my nerves, I’ll toss it in a drawer and slump back into my previous routine. As Marshall McLuhan most certainly did not write, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools badger us relentlessly until we turn the damn things off.”

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