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.

Nudge mobile notifications.
Nudge notifications. [Photo:]

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.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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