SAO PAULO — Imagine the following situation: You go to the bathroom, but because you're in a hurry, you head toward the exit without washing your hands. As you try to open the door, you notice that it has locked automatically. An alarm bell sounds. Only then you understand that the door won't open until you press the soap button and wash your hands.
It may sound like fiction, but this technology already exists and is in use. It's called the Safeguard Germ Alarm.
This is one of the least visible aspects of the so-called "Internet of things," namely its use for social control. Objects of all kinds that we use daily — from refrigerators, fans and irons to locks, cars, chairs, even our beds — soon will be fitted with sensors and made capable of connecting to the Internet.
The refrigerator will warn you when you're running out of milk; your bed will tell health care services that you haven't been sleeping well; and the bathroom will lock you in to basic hygiene habits.
Embedded as it is with political visions, this technology is far from neutral. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt suggested the creation of the equivalent of "spell checkers" for hate speech and harassment on the Internet. Some speech interfaces already include such controls that automatically correct words and censor profanity.
And what about "behavior checkers"? Fitness tracker bracelets, which encourage people to exercise and eat well, are a good example. A better one is Pavlok, branded as "the first behavior change wearable that breaks bad habits." It promises to help users change their evil ways within five days, in large part by releasing electric shocks. The device comes with three pre-loaded apps, including one called Wake Up, whose aim is just what it sounds like.
Another Pavlok app is called Productive, which is meant to monitor online habits, punishing users when they're distracted from their work. There's also Fit, which follows diet and exercise routines and disciplines users who don't meet their goals. As the company says, "Pavlok doesn't just track what you do. It transforms who you are."
This type of system makes individuals accountable for the full weight of their "failures," but ignores the deeper causes to many issues. In the words of technology writer Evgeny Morozov: "Politics cease to be a common adventure and turn into an individualistic show for the consumer, in which we entrust the search for social solutions to apps."
One in three people don't wash their hands after using the bathroom. You can take my word for it that locking the door automatically isn't going to solve that issue. And remember, many a tyranny in history originated from a desire to do good.