January 7, 2024

Self Discipline and Technology

Many of our inventions and creations reflect bits and pieces of us as a collective mind. Digital technology is one of our biggest mirrors. Made to follow a set of rules and execute them in a predefined manner to generate an output or accomplish a goal, one could say that it is a version of us that we aspire to be. Man has long struggled with self discipline and often found it hard to follow his self imposed rules. The APA dictionary of Psychology defines Self Discipline as the control of one’s impulses and desires, forgoing immediate satisfaction in favor of long-term goals, the second definition is stated as the resolute adherence to a regimen or course of action in order to achieve one’s goals. Other terms associated with it are self-control, self-regulation and Willpower.

Before we build deeper connections between self discipline and technology as its mirror let us dive into the world of human behavior and willpower. Psychologists and researchers have been studying willpower for decades, it is the trait that teaches us patience through delayed gratification, mental strength through self control, and keeps us motivated helping us achieve our goals. What exactly is going on in the mind’s cognitive machinery—and the brain’s neurons when we practice self-control? One theory correlates willpower with energy -similar to brain fuel- and hence linking it to consumption of sugar or energy foods. A study led by professor Daniel Molden, Northwestern University USA, found that merely stimulating the senses with an upcoming reward triggered necessary neural reactions to increase self-motivation. If triggering the mind and releasing dopamines increase our motivation to perform a task or stick to a rule, does that mean the lack of an instant reward or gratifications is what causes us to break out of self-control? If a reward, even if it’s just an increased number of virtual points on the screen, is all that is needed, what is stopping us from building a better world?

It is a fact that we now live in a world in which the technology we use plays an important role in controlling our lives as much as governing laws written in public law books. Code has turned into a hidden law and a growing force that rapidly affects our interactions, decisions, and lives as a whole. A smart home appliance, a mobile device, an online platform or an intelligent watch can now monitor our behavior, recommend alternatives, and influence decisions. With technology’s ability to affect different parts of our lives, did we unconsciously create a global machine that can forcibly self-regulate us? Perhaps Willpower already exists in all of us but we needed to create a mirror to show us how to practice self-control through digital applications. We now have applications that remind us to exercise and then reward us with digital points or a smartwatch that timely taps our wrists, through vibrations, to tell us to keep up with our tasks; and they have turned into our external self-regulators. Just like how cars can nowadays control our driving speed and enhance our driving behavior, making us politemen that respect the roads and each other, teaching us self-discipline by literally taking control of the wheel. Technology reflects our need for self-discipline and is imposing it on us by showing us how our lives can be if we had enough self-discipline. And the irony in all of this is that technology is programming us to perform in a specific way, controlling us without us noticing, where we always believed that it was us who had full control.

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