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After honeymooning without his iPhone, Noah Brier speculates that we’ve reached a point where in order to get anything done we need to ‘engineer difficulty’:

as part of having a phone with a keypad (not even keyboard) I went back to T9 (you remember it, predictive type for SMS messages).  The struggle to send a simple message made me think about how we are likely going to need to start add elements to our interfaces that actually make tasks harder, not easier. Imagine how many fewer emails you’d write on your iPhone if you were forced to use T9 for instance.

While it’s not the perfect parallel, something like WriteRoom lets you block out everything else when you’re trying to write (Pages now has a full screen option as well, actually) and I remember hearing about an application from a few years ago that turned off your WiFi until you restarted the computer so you could get something done. It’s funny to think that we’ve reached a point where things are so easy that we need to start making them hard again.

There are lots of these ‘nudging’ services available (e.g. stickK and LeechBlock are just two that come to mind) where people can structure the incentives around an activity to make it’s completion more likely.

This reminds of a much older concept related to relaying the credibility of one’s commitments: tying one’s hands.  The premise, articulated famously by Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling in regards to nuclear deterrance, is that in order to convince another of one’s resolve to carry through on an undesireable act one must design mechanisms that would make it impossible to avoid following through.  Schelling cites an episode from the Cold War to illustrate how this (intentional or unintentional) dynamic works:

This is the postion Chiang Kai-shek got himself into, and us, when he moved a large portion of his best troops Qeumoy.  Evacuation under fire would be exceedingly difficult; if attacked, his troops had no choice but to fight, and we probably had no choice but to assist them.

Schelling as often spoke about the utility of tying one’s own hands on purpose to prevent bad behavior or force good behavior.  (On many occasions, Schelling has spoken about using such strategies to quite smoking,)  Like Cortez, burning the boats provides a fool-proof mechanism for ensuring full committment–press on with a difficult task since there is now no alternative.

I don’t know if we need these services more than ever because of technology.  Rather, I think technology makes it easier for people to employ such strategies on a daily basis and use them to their advantage.  We can’t all burn the boats like Cortez, but technology gives us a reasonable approximation.

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