An ethicist considers the ramifications of using apps to improve our habits. And also whether willpower as we normally think about it even exists.
Evan Selinger in The Atlantic:
In article after article, one theme emerges from the media coverage of people's relationships with our current set of technologies: Consumers want digital willpower. App designers in touch with the latest trends in behavioral modification–nudging, the quantified self, and gamification–and good old-fashioned financial incentive manipulation, are tackling weakness of will. They're harnessing the power of payouts, cognitive biases, social networking, and biofeedback. The quantified self becomes the programmable self.
Skeptics might believe while this trend will grow as significant gains occur in developing wearable sensors and ambient intelligence, it doesn't point to anything new. After all, humans have always found creative ways to manipulate behavior through technology–whips, chastity belts, speed bumps, and alarm clocks all spring to mind. So, whether or not we're living in unprecedented times is a matter of debate, but nonetheless, the trend still has multiple interesting dimensions.
Let's start here: Individuals are turning ever more aspects of their lives into managerial problems that require technological solutions. We have access to an ever-increasing array of free and inexpensive technologies that harness incredible computational power that effectively allows us to self-police behavior everywhere we go. As pervasiveness expands, so does trust. Our willingness to delegate tasks to trusted software has increased significantly.
Individuals (and, as we'll see, philosophers) are growing increasingly realistic about how limited their decision-making skills and resolve are.