Sugarcoated surveillance
Let's make it cute and no one will notice the tracking.
november 1, 2020
As Zuboff (2019) states, a visually innocent application such as Pokémon Go makes a great leap in directly affecting users’ behaviors by placing important game features known as “Gyms” close to company-dense areas. This makes it possible for the app to create a possible assurance that the user - one time or another - will physically move to the location due to their need of progressing in the game, thereby affecting the actual visits to a certain place.

I have often heard about the ability to change behaviour in the actual digital context, such as within an app or digital service, but the thing about digital artefacts actually being able to directly influence physical movement is something that I have never thought about. Sure, I have seen the running applications circulating the digital marketplaces. And yes, I have at times been motivated to go for an extra long walk to complete the five-miles-a-day challenge that I have created inside my brain thanks to Apple’s Health app. Thereby I do understand that an app can influence our physical movement and the distance people move, but never did I think that a personal child icon in the form of Pokémon would make me move to a certain area to generate income and stimulate its own and other business’ revenue.

Just as Pokémon is providing its Pokémon trainers with virtual pathways and indications on how and where to move, our design of Health Buddy is similar in a sense. The Health Buddy  is in short working with ML to learn from behaviours and adapt to different work schedules to implement exercise activities that fit with users’ workday. This includes not only making sure that the time of the proposed activity is met, but also mapping out a running path that fits the allocated time and fitness levels of the users, meaning there is a chance to manipulate users physical movement and thereby have an influence on what users will see during their runs or walks.

The ability to influence the physical movement of people opens up new revenue models, meaning that companies may pay for services such as Health Buddy to suggest running paths that are in their favour (Zuboff, 2019). Thereby, I have as a designer learned the importance of not judging an application or a service by its fluffy or healthy-looking cover, but also understand, and take into consideration, that functions that are supposed to be assisting us in living a healthier life by moving may contain hidden revenue models affected by commercial interests. Another question arising from the topic is the existential question regarding what happens when even our exercising becomes the consequence of a commercial interest. Is the exercise even ours, or not? Are we, by the implementation of Alexa and other eavesdropping devices [1], guided in a certain direction which thus in the long run damages our ability as human beings to think and decide freely? I am not saying that the responsibility is fully in the hands of designers, but we can actively choose whether to contribute to, or tackle, the emerging situation.

[1], retrieved 01-11-2020

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Barack Obama's Books of 2019. Profile Books.