Books

“Electric shock-inducing wristbands might help break bad habits, but they’re a step too far in the quest for perfection”

Wristbands that give electric shocks when we indulge in a bad habit are on the market, but author Christina Dalcher would prefer to see them only exist in dystopian fiction.

Imagine writing science fiction. Somewhere, down in the dark coal mines of your consciousness, there’s the spark of an idea. An increasingly sentient computer named HAL who refuses to open pod bay doors. A rapidly self-replicating virus that wipes out 90% of the world population before said population is aware of the danger. Iris-scanners with the ability to personalise sales pitches and invade our privacy in myriad ways.

Or, perhaps, shock-inducing wrist bands that limit women to 100 words in a 24-hour period.

Only a small leap of faith is required to see that the first three scenarios could become reality (nods to Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, and Philip K. Dick for these creepy what-ifs). The fourth, which is the premise in my novel VOX, seemed almost ridiculously far-fetched at the time I was writing. And it still does — whenever I speak about the book, I’m guaranteed to be asked the question: “So, do you think this could ever happen?” My answer, of course, to whether I believe women — or anyone — would be a victim of such draconian punishment is an unequivocal “no”.

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Which is why, when I recently learned of a shock-inducing wrist band on the market, one that claims to help you kick your nasty tobacco-smoking/donut-scarfing/nail-biting/hair-pulling habits by way of aversive conditioning, I felt more than a tingle of fright. The Pavlok 2 (a sister device to the no-explanation-needed Shock Clock 2) operates on a simple premise: you pick up that ciggie (or donut) and you press the bracelet’s button, conveniently marked by a lightning bolt.

Zap. Buzz. Pain.

In the time it takes to say ‘amperage’, your craving for fags and fried sugar is associated with an unpleasant electrical jolt of up to 450 Volts. If the Pavlok’s design limited itself to this voluntary, on-the-spot masochism, I might not be writing this.

But there’s more.

Want to auto-zap yourself whenever you open an unproductive website (looking at you, Facebook and Twitter)? How about a shock when you exceed a certain number of open tabs in your browser (studies show clutter and focus don’t mix well)? Or a dissuasive little buzz each time you raise a hand toward your face (we’re back to the ciggies and junk food)? Set your limits, and Pavlok will remind you, rather like a shock collar reminds a misbehaving dog.

Whether Pavlok works or not, I can’t say. And it’s unlikely I’ll be assessing its touted benefits anytime soon. To begin with, I’m averse to aversive conditioning, particularly behavioral modification that comes at the cost of pain. But Pavlok goes a step further, a step too far in the direction of the kind of external control I imagined in VOX. The £150 you spend on this scary device buys not only self-shocking capability, but also the option to assign remote shocking privileges to your loved ones. And since it’s becoming increasingly difficult to trust anything in cyberspace to stay where it’s supposed to, my novelist’s imagination is conjuring effects beyond voluntary punishment. Does your wife notice you going back to the casserole dish for seconds? Zap. Is your boss tired of asking you when that deliverable will be ready? Zap. Does your husband think you talk too much? Zap.

You see where I’m going.

If we want to be part of the hip, young in-crowd, we should probably excise phrases like “new technology is frightening” from our lexicons. Fear of high-tech gizmos marks us as dated, traditional, reluctant to change — all of which seem to be euphemisms for “old”. Which is why, finding myself on the other side of 50, I hesitate to talk openly about those fears. Social media isn’t sinister; it’s where the cool cats hang out (even if some of those cool cats might be watching us from their Russian lairs). Step-tracking Fitbits and sleep-regulating apps help us achieve perfection in walking around and getting rest at the expense of inducing anxiety when our smartphones inform us we’re not moving and resting enough. Find Friends alerts mum that Timmy just fell down a well, but it’s also capable of sharing Timmy’s location with a stranger whose motives are not of the rescuing maternal sort.

Christina Dalcher's VOX features bracelets which shock women if they speak too much.
Christina Dalcher’s VOX features bracelets which shock women if they speak too much.

The problem with new tech isn’t what we know it can do. The problem is we don’t know what it might be able to do. In VOX, I subjected women to the worst kind of Skinnerian conditioning to prevent them from speaking. In the book I’m currently writing, I explore a different type of speech control on a different population.

Whether Pavlok works or not, my preference is to always be able to answer the “do you think this could really happen” question with the same emphatic “no”. If that means I absent-mindedly munch on another beignet or chip or cheese doodle, so be it.

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Images: Getty, HarperCollins

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