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The 'Internet of Things' Will Take Nudge Theory Too Far
The 24/7 nudge economy is emerging. Once-quiet appliances that waited for you to push their buttons are now pushing yours.
My mother turned sharply, red-faced, yelling at me to “stop being a noodge!” Shopping with my mother as a young boy I can remember begging her to buy the cereal box that contained the prize that I was sure would change my life, to give me the plastic toy hanging from the store shelf like a baited hook, or pestering her for candy strategically placed at my six-year-old eye level at the checkout counter. Today whining six year olds are not the only noodges (an annoyance or a pest) out there. Today we are now being ‘nudged’ to do something by nearly everyone and now every thing. So when will all this nudging become a noodge?
We all want to make good decisions. Our doctors, financial advisors, employers, transportation planners and even the janitor would like us to make the ‘right’ choice. The places and spaces where we make those decisions form what decision researchers refer to as our ‘choice architecture’. The idea of nudge or nudging people to make the ‘optimal’ decision has been a mainstay in political science, economics and psychology for decades.
Perhaps the best known theorists on nudging may be Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. They define ‘nudge’ in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness as a gentle, not mandated, cue, push or other means to encourage a desired behavior.
Nudge theory suggests that gentle nudges to an individual can lead to decisions and behaviors that may benefit both the individual and community. Rather that prohibiting a behavior, desired actions are encouraged almost by stealth, such as identifying one product online as the ‘most popular’ to prompt a click or providing the calorie count next to the name of your favorite chocolate-covered cream-filled delight to rethink your breakfast options. Perhaps the most colorful example is the image of a fly painted on men’s urinals to encourage optimal point and shoot behavior to maintain a clean restroom.
Now enter the Internet-of-Things (IoT) – millions of ‘smart’ devices connected and communicating with each other. IoT now provides 24/7 access to consumers. Coupled with insights drawn from big data, IoT can deliver messages to nudge you based upon your location, past preferences, demographics, health and almost any other characteristic you can imagine.
These ubiquitous and connected sensor-rich devices monitor, manage, and motivate behaviors with nudges in the form of a buzz, a blink, or a beat. A pill app buzzes to remind you to take your medications. The car dashboard now blinks a coffee cup icon suggesting that you should consider taking a rest to manage fatigue. And, your favorite wearable gently beats a tapping rhythm on your wrist suggesting that it is time to stand up and take a short walk.
As our environments become more intelligent and our wearables connect us to nearly everyone and everything we can expect to be nudged more often. Retailers are perfecting location-based services to buzz your phone with a sale just for you as you casually walk through the mall.
A restaurant you went to a year ago somehow knows you're driving by and offers a free dessert if you come in for lunch – right now. And, of course, the promise of a quantified life to improve your health will soon mean your wearables (and the coming generation of implantables) will be nudging you to exercise, eat right, take your meds, meditate, breathe deeply and more often.
Breathe notifications for Apple Watch.
Even if you dare to shut off your smartphone and take off your helpful nudgers for a quiet evening at home, there will be plenty of devices to get you through the night. Your robotic home assistant (Google Home, Amazon Echo, etc.) will remind you of a new ‘opportunity’ as you were simply ordering a new book online. Once-quiet appliances that waited for you to push their buttons are now pushing yours. Your coffee machine beeps to remind you that you may want to prefill it to reduce the morning rush. The thermostat glows indicating that your energy use may be greater than that of your neighbors. The washer beckons that it is done with the day’s load and the dryer cries out that it needs to be emptied. Even your oven utters tones suggesting it may be time to clean it. Tired? No worries, your home robot will someday gently nudge you that it is now time to sleep.
So when will these nudges become noodges?
In fact, we may be rapidly approaching the limits of what consumers can take from well-meaning nudges. The always-on economy once referred to work life that had no boundaries between where we work, where we live, or what time it was. Today the 24/7 nudge economy is emerging. The intense desire of nearly every organization to engage us as a client, patient, consumer, member or simple user, along with the technology to do so, may soon lead to nudge fatigue.
A nudge gone wrong.
We have seen what happens when there is too much of anything. Too many choices on the grocery shelf, along with too much information, often forces consumers to default to purchasing the familiar sprinting to the check-out counter (or digital shopping cart) as fast as possible.
For many people their email runneth over. To cope with the volume and the velocity of incoming messages many sacrifice their work productivity or sleep time to answer an unending torrent of emails. As the inbox stacks up we may divert selected people to other channels such as text…and then the texts begin to stack up filling even that channel.
Nudge fatigue even happens to professionals. Commercial pilots and hospital nurses call it alarm fatigue when they either turn off or no longer hear the ‘bells.’ Similar to pilots and nurses our ‘warning’ nudges in our cars can become background noise. The chimes to fasten our seat belts, the blinks detecting something in our blind spot, and yes, even the helpful (and somewhat passive aggressive) coffee cup glowing on our dashboard reminding us of our fatigue, are becoming blurs not necessarily crisp motivators. In the 24/7 nudge economy, shutting down and off the grid may soon become the new luxury rather than sporting the next-generation shiny connected wearable.
Nudge remains a powerful and valuable tool in the behavioral toolbox. However, nudgers must now consider the nudge noise the consumer is managing hourly. Digital strategists, in particular, can no longer solely focus on channel, behavior, location and content to identify the optimal opportunity to present a message or make a pitch. Big data and IoT should also be used to better understand the real-time mood of the person, how much digital noise they are willing to tolerate or how much nudge noise they are being subjected to at that very moment. Otherwise the gentle well-meaning nudge becomes just another six year old pleading for candy before breakfast.
Now, please excuse me, my watch is telling me it is time to stand up and breathe deeply.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.