Aristotle & the Quantified Life
While Aristotle was writing centuries before the rise of wearable technology, his view of moral education provides a solid foundation for the theory behind what I like to call the benign tyranny of the device. Or, if one prefers, the bearable tyranny of the wearbable.
In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle addressed the very practical problem of how to make people good. He was well aware that merely listening to discourses on morality would not make people good. In a very apt analogy, he noted that such people would be like invalids who listened to their doctors, but did not carry out her instructions—they will get no benefit.
His primary solution to the problem is one that is routinely endorsed and condemned today: to use the compulsive power of the state to make people behave well and thus become conditioned in that behavior. Obviously, most people are quite happy to have the state compel people to act as they would like them to act; yet equally unhappy when it comes to the state imposing on them. Aristotle was also well aware of the importance of training people from an early age—something later developed by the Nazis and Madison Avenue.
While there have been some attempts in the United States and other Western nations to use the compulsive power of the state to force people to engage in healthy practices, these have been fairly unsuccessful and are usually opposed as draconian violations of the liberty to be out of shape. While the idea of a Fitness Force chasing people around to make them exercise amuses me, I certainly would oppose such impositions on both practical and moral grounds. However, most people do need some external coercion to force them to engage in healthy behavior. Those who are well-off can hire a personal trainer and a fitness coach. Those who are less well of can appeal to the tyranny of friends who are already self-tyrannizing. However, there are many obvious problems with relying on other people. This is where the tyranny of the device comes in.
While the quantified life via electronics is in its relative infancy, there is already a multitude of devices ranging from smart fitness watches, to smart plates, to smart scales, to smart forks. All of these devices offer measurements of activities to quantify the self and most of them offer coercion ranging from annoying noises, to automatic social media posts (“today my feet did not patter, so now my ass grows fatter”), to the old school electric shock (really).
While the devices vary in their specifics, Aristotle laid out the basic requirements back when lightning was believed to come from Zeus. Aristotle noted that a person must do no wrong either with or against one’s will. In the case of fitness, this would be acting in ways contrary to health.
What is needed, according to Aristotle, is “the guidance of some intelligence or right system that has effective force.” The first part of this is that the device or app must be the “right system.” That is to say, the device must provide correct guidance in terms of health and well-being. Unfortunately, health is often ruled by fad and not actual science.
The second part of this is the matter of “effective force.” That is, the device or app must have the power to compel. Aristotle noted that individuals lacked such compulsive power, so he favored the power of law. Good law has practical wisdom and also compulsive force. However, unless the state is going to get into the business of compelling health, this option is out.
Interesting, Aristotle claims that “although people resent it when their impulses are opposed by human agents, even if they are in the right, the law causes no irritation by enjoining decent behavior.” While this seems not entirely true, he did seem to be right in that people find the law less annoying than being bossed around by individuals acting as individuals (like that bossy neighbor telling you to turn down the music).
The same could be true of devices—while being bossed around by a person (“hey fatty, you’ve had enough ice cream, get out and run some”) would annoy most people, being bossed by an app or device could be far less annoying. In fact, most people are already fully conditioned by their devices—they obey every command to pick up their smartphones and pay attention to whatever is beeping or flashing. Some people do this even when doing so puts people at risk, such as when they are driving. This certainly provides a vast ocean of psychological conditioning to tap into, but for a better cause. So, instead of mindlessly flipping through Instagram or texting words of nothingness, a person would be compelled by her digital master to exercise more, eat less crap, and get more sleep. Soon the machine tyrants will have very fit hosts to carry them around.
So, Aristotle has provided the perfect theoretical foundation for designing the tyrannical device. To recap, it needs the following features:
- Practical wisdom: the health science for the device or app needs to be correct and the guidance effective.
- Compulsive power: the device or app must be able to compel the user effectively and make them obey.
- Not too annoying: while it must have compulsive power, this power must not generate annoyance that exceeds its ability to compel.
- A cool name.
So, get to work on those devices and apps. The age of machine tyranny is not going to impose itself. At least not yet.