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For all the attention we’ve given in the past year to wearable devices like Google Glass, Nike FuelBand and Jawbone UP, the focus on hardware and form factor misses the far more thrilling – and perhaps frightening – topic of how wearable devices are going to change who we are as people. Wearables promise to let technology impact us on a more personal level, and as our gadgets become more intimate it’s inevitable that their influence will deepen.

Psychology researchers have been looking into human behavior reinforcement, and the conclusions they’ve reached are startling. The subconscious mechanisms by which a human brain forms habits are no longer a complete mystery, and that understanding has let us start devising tools for altering them. As a result, we’re now at the edge of an era in which human behavior has become a design problem.

Changing the unchangeable

In a 2011 article on feedback loops, Wired editor Thomas Goetz describes how a single “Your Speed” box on the side of a busy road does a better job of slowing down drivers than the most relentless speed trap, and then illustrates this effect with a number of other examples. They point to a kind of revolution in persuasion tactics: We are able to encourage or discourage behaviors once thought unchangeable simply by offering immediate, actionable feedback. Well-designed feedback changes behavior.

Imagine what’s possible when we apply that kind of feedback loop to a broader range of habits. Health-related behaviors, for example. Or even buying behaviors.

Always aware, always on

What truly sets wearables apart from earlier platforms is their sensitivity and their constancy. A computer in your pocket can keep track of where you’re going, but it will drain your battery in the process. But a computer on your wrist can track your steps, your heart rate and even your mood, and it can do this all day long. This gives it the ability to spot patterns, and to tailor its feedback accordingly. And because the wrist-mounted one occupies a constantly visible place on your body, it gains the ability to put information in front of you instantly, at almost any time – if your wrist-watch suddenly buzzed and displayed a message, you’d surely check it in a consistent way that can’t always be said about a smartphone.

It’s clear that wearables and feedback loops were meant for each other. Properly designed, a wrist- or head-mounted device could provide the kind of behavior-changing feedback that the “Your Speed” box does resulting in saved lives. Improperly designed, a similar device could reinforce actions that make us antisocial, paranoid or deadly, as the recent proliferation of texting-related accidents has made clear. Designers and manufacturers have the power to make either scenario come true.

“Cool or Creepy” is just the beginning

Recent conversations about ethics and wearable technology have mostly boiled down to Google Glass and its implications for privacy. It’s a valid concern, made even more apparent with the recent revelation of the NSA access to our phone records. After all, we’re talking about a near future in which a widely available device lets anyone record anything with minimal effort and little indication, and that violates a basic social contract in many societies.

But as Google itself has pointed out, there are plenty of other devices better suited to clandestine surveillance. And many technology users – younger consumers especially – have made it clear that they’re fine with sacrificing some privacy in exchange for a more personalized tech experience. The privacy debate needs to happen, but it’s ultimately a bogeyman that will fade once wearables go mainstream.

The ability to influence behavior, though, is a much bigger issue. So far, concerns with Google Glass can be summed up by the question “cool or creepy?” The question, asked in dozens of articles, implies that acceptance of wearables depends on your perception of new technology in general, and that, just like cell phones and automobiles, we’ll all get over it eventually.

The ethics of influence

But the ability to alter habits and behaviors in the long-term is more than cool: it’s revolutionary. And using that ability to encourage damaging behaviors isn’t just creepy – it’s sinister. A recent parody video imagining a Google Glass experience that’s been “enhanced” by AdSense ads gives us a taste of what’s possible, but the reality will probably be much more subtle. And potentially more worrisome.

How about a device that gives you gentle cues to spend money irresponsibly? Or one that creates a cycle of digital dependence that makes today’s concerns over texting-addiction look quaint? The real ethical debate is in deciding how we’re going to use wearables to influence behaviors, once we master designing the feedback they offer.

At the same time, any tool that lets us consciously modify our unconscious behaviors could save or improve millions of lives. Rates of diabetes and heart disease, for example, could be dramatically reduced using technology that teaches us to make healthier decisions about diet and exercise. Wearables could even be used to support habits that reduce accidents at the workplace, or promote the kind of social engagement that reduces crime and improves quality of life.

This is social engineering in its most literal sense, made possible by technology, with all of the promise and paranoia that phrase implies.  

Sean Madden is executive managing director of Portland-based design firm Ziba Design.

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