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Electric shock therapy gets personal

Shock it to me

Can you become a better person by electrocuting yourself? Jonathan Beckman steels himself for a bolt from the blue

Can you become a better person by electrocuting yourself? Jonathan Beckman steels himself for a bolt from the blue

Jonathan Beckman | February/March 2018

In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale, devised an experiment to demonstrate the dumb obedience shown by human beings to authority figures. Participants were divided up into groups of teachers and learners. The teachers delivered memory tests to the learners and were instructed to administer electric shocks to pupils who answered incorrectly, increasing the dosage for every flub (unbeknownst to the teachers, the shocks were simulated). A dismayingly large number of subjects complied unquestioningly with the terms of the experiment.

Capitalism has taken Milgram’s insights into man’s inhumanity to man and gone one better. Pavlok, the tech world’s latest advance in sublimated authoritarianism, is a powerful tool for the development of man’s inhumanity to self.

Want to transform yourself into a happier, healthier, more productive person who doesn’t fritter away their life eating Doritos and watching rabbit-wrestling videos on YouTube? Simply strap Pavlock to your wrist and every time you find yourself drawn to temptation or distraction, press the lightening bolt on the top to inflict an electric shock upon yourself. The level of shock has been carefully calibrated to bring you to your senses without causing serious pain. It’s about the strength of a neurasthenic but methodical wasp trying to catch your attention. Give yourself enough doses and you’ll soon find yourself svelter, more focused and with a gently seared forearm. There is evidently a market for motivated masochism: over 50,000 people have bought a Pavlok.

But Pavlok’s designers hadn’t reckoned with the thick basting of neurosis that coated my weakness of the will. I pushed the bolt just to check the battery was still working. No one wants to be out of juice when staring down an Eccles cake. I kept pressing. After a while, it felt enlivening, like a couple of rounds in a sauna with an angry Finn and a large sheaf of birch twigs. But as I prodded away, I started to worry that I was habituating myself to self-chastisement and I couldn’t escape it because the cure itself was the disease. Eventually the battery ran out, leaving me utterly defenceless against all forms of pastry.

Pavlok doesn’t just rely on its users’ strength of mind to work. You can pair it through Bluetooth to an app on your phone so that a series of beeps will snap you out of your obsessive stupor as you bear down on your favourite fast-food outlet. Ideally, at this point, your fellow pedestrians will circle round you, stomp their feet in a frenzy and chant “Kill the pig! Cut its throat,” though Pavlok offers no guarantees. In reality, you sound like an android on the blink. Another function instructs Pavlok to buzz every time you raise your hand to your face (it’s supposed to make nail-biters or people inclined unthinkingly to claw out their own eyes more mindful). At dinner parties, I couldn’t take a mouthful without my hosts thinking there was someone at the door. On the rush-hour tube, I swayed in packed carriages, giving off a passable impression of a trigger-happy “University Challenge” contestant, while my fellow commuters looked on suspiciously and wondered whether they were justified in pulling the passenger alarm (they were British, so of course they didn’t do anything).

All this doesn’t come cheap. The basic version costs $179.99; Pavlok 2 – don’t just “break bad habits” but “form good habits” too – costs $299.97. This seems like a lot, until you realise quite how difficult it is to get a Spanish inquisitor out on a dank Sunday evening in east London. Anyway, after Brexit, the immigration requirements will be hellish. And Pavlock, unlike a Spaniard armed with a thumbscrew, has a certain sinister sophistication. The original model comes with rubber wristband; its successor is a sleeker metal-and-magnets number that clips on and off with a satisfying slap. Until, that is, it breaks (as did both the samples I tried). You might think such an expensive product would be more robust.

Pavlok may look like an escapee from a Philip K. Dick novel but at least it has the decency not to work very well. The automated elements barely function on Apple’s operating system. Android phones are more successful though still erratic in execution. Maybe a dab of uncertainty just adds to the effect. Don’t we all sit in fearful concentration when waiting for the tap on the shoulder? And sometimes for the zap on the wrist.