Making Change

And now for something completely different! Short fiction in honor of the recent unveiling of the Apple iWatch and Healthkit.

“I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.”

Sylvia paused, bacon cheeseburger halfway to her mouth, and peered at the neon green band wrapped around her wrist. The wraparound touchscreen was currently showing a cat emoji. It had a frowny face, expression halfway between puzzlement and alarm.

“What did you say?”

“I’m just saying,” said her Best Buddy wristband, “that when we met a few weeks ago, you mentioned wanting to keep your weight in a specific range.” The emoji shrugged. “Little friendly reminder. You know?”

Sylvia carefully put the burger back down and resisted the urge to lick grease off her fingers. She fumbled for her napkin, her fingers leaving translucent streaks on the thin, white paper.

“I–well, yeah. But, I mean, you’ve never said anything like this before like when–” She broke off, remembering the milkshake, the onion rings, the King-size Choconut bar…

“Well it’s not the first thing you do, is it? When you meet someone and you’re just getting to know them?” The cat had morphed into a light pink, animated mouse, standing on its hind legs, bashfully kicking one leg. “But now, we’re friends!”

In an odd way, Sylvia knew what the Best Buddy meant. After getting the wristband and syncing it to her online account and other personal e-wear, she had dutifully followed the instructions in the graphic novel-inspired instruction manual on how to slowly begin the process of interacting with the Best Buddy, to personalize its interactions. The manual made the point more than once that for the Best Buddy to provide the best, most precise and useful help to its wearer, it would require real commitment to making a connection with the AI.

That had meant having several long conversations which followed a script not unlike what Sylvia had gone through when she’d tried to meet guys via online dating. Lots of getting-to-know-you questions and anecdotes. I suppose, Sylvia had found herself thinking at the time, it’s true what they say: we really just want to talk about ourselves. Because talking to the Best Buddy, who always seemed friendly, interested and excited about anything Sylvia shared, had led to some pretty long late night conversations that could only be described as quite satisfying and also rather one-sided.

But then, what would she possibly have asked of a wristband, no matter how friendly? Everything she needed to know was in the manual or already absorbed through different advertising snippets that were everywhere these days–6 second shorts on Vine, push-notification tweets, text blurbs. Even now she could hear the distant voice of the CEO of Tek to a Better You, Molly Cooper, explaining how they’d designed the Best Buddy using the most recent research on behavioral economics and behavior change. Sylvia glanced up at one of the TV monitors in the food court, catching a glimpse of the Best Buddy logo before another ad started up.

She shook her head. She still felt hungry but also self-conscious. Leaving her tray behind, Sylvia stood and began walking down the mall thoroughfare.

“Great choice,” said the Best Buddy. “You know what, that just got you a set of three new resources in OtterVillage! Two trout and some wapato!”

OtterVillage was the simulation building game Sylvia had downloaded last week on the suggestion of the Best Buddy, and which had been frustrating her in the early levels because she couldn’t quite manage to build up a big enough den before the seasonal rains washed it away. Silvia perked up. With the food resources, she could start an otter family earlier and have more otters to help build, the next time she played. One nice thing about the Best Buddy–the personalized, immediate rewards for good behaviors.

Distracted by the thought, Sylvia wandered past a store whose display window was currently under construction. The dark drapery made her reflection stand out and Sylvia paused to look at herself.

Medium height, medium build, dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Baggy rugby jersey over grey sweatpants. Serious mouth. Her parents kept suggesting she smile more but that seemed like such an effort sometimes. The Best Buddy on her wrist stood out, even in the reflection. She pursed her lips, raised a hand to brush back some loose strands of hair. In the reflection, it didn’t seem obvious that she’d gained a few pounds over the summer.

“Let’s keep walking,” The Best Buddy had begun flashing a strobe-like pattern that simulated movement, around and around her wrist. “I’m counting the steps and you’re so close to your goal for today!”

Sylvia turned and began slowly continuing down the mall. A persistent pulsing on her wrist made her look down, where she saw that the message “I bet you can take steps at this pace!” was circling the wristband. She sighed but began to quicken her steps, trying to match the pulsing.

Was it subtly speeding up? She felt herself beginning to get a little out of breath and was grateful when suddenly the pulsing stopped and the words “Good job!” winked at her in cherry red letters.

Suddenly she felt a tap on her shoulder. “Nice work,” said a middle-aged man, giving her an encouraging smile and a thumbs-up. A bright orange Best Buddy dangled loosely around his wrist. Several other people approached her with similar quick, encouraging messages before moving off. Each had their own Best Buddy.

She felt disoriented. “I hope you don’t mind,” her Best Buddy told her. “Since it’s the first day we came here for exercise I wanted to make sure you got plenty of good, positive reinforcement for what a great thing it is you’re doing for your health.”

“I didn’t realize you would communicate like that. I mean, well, it was nice, but don’t you think that’s a little like an invasion of privacy?”

“Oh, not at all. This was clearly stated in the agreement. On page 436.”

Sylvia scratched her head. “The agreement has 436 pages? I mean, I clicked on the ‘accept’  link, but I didn’t realize there was so much in there.”

“Not just 436. It’s longer than that.” The emoji was back and chasing its own tail. “Best Buddies aren’t just to help you by yourself. We’re trying to build a community.” The cat was joined by the pink mouse and a jolly elephant, all dancing in sync.

I need to sit down, she thought. They had looped back to the food court and Sylvia walked over to the cafe.

“Going to get a nice, refreshing unsweetened ice tea?” the Best Buddy asked.

Ignoring it, Sylvia placed an order for a vanilla latte with extra shots of syrup. Her wrist thrummed. She glanced down and stopped, shocked.

On the wristband was an image of her Aunt Mary, who had died last year from a heart attack followed by edema. She had been obese. She had also been Sylvia’s favorite relative, a woman with a sharp wit and insight, to whom Sylvia had turned for guidance several times as she moved through high school and college. And then, suddenly, the face morphed from Mary’s to Sylvia’s. Older, puffier, but still recognizably her.

“How did you–” she began, feeling a sudden burst of anger.

“The image files are part of your personal cache,” the Best Buddy interrupted, smoothly. “Which I have access to. And research shows that envisioning one’s future self is a great way to make the consequences of your actions clearer to you.”

“I’m just trying to help you change your behavior,” it added. The cat emoji was back, but this time with a wide-eyed look of concern and caring. “When we got to know each other, you talked about how much you didn’t want to end up overweight, with all the issues that might bring.”

“Yeah, but not like this! I thought this would just be a more high tech version of a step and calorie counter. I didn’t agree to this–”

“Actually, I’m afraid that…” it began, but Sylvia was already pulling it off her wrist. She tossed it to a cafe table and stormed out of the mall, glass doors sliding shut silently behind her.

Outside, the warm, moist Boston air struck her like a slap after the cool air of the mall and she stopped, closing her eyes, breathing deeply. She could smell asphalt and exhaust and these odors, unpleasant though they were, still helped settle her agitation.

This wasn’t what she’d thought it would be like. There had been good things the Best Buddy had done, helping her keep track of what she ate or did, but these other things it was doing…Were they really the best way to get to the kind of discipline she thought she needed to keep healthy? Whose definition of healthy, anyway?

A breeze blew across her face, drying the tears that had started to seep out at the corners of her eyes. She nodded to herself. She’d figure out a different way. She opened her eyes.

And saw a four rotor drone, hovering silently overhead. Dangling from its gripper arm was a neon green circle.

“Automatic loss prevention and return are part of the agreement,” said the Best Buddy in a cheerful voice. “Please return me to your wrist. As per page 634, I’m yours.”

“And you’re mine.”

Reading through this, I can see some clear influences from Her and The Circle, among other things. While this story might not suggest it, I’m actually really optimistic about how tech can help us get to better health. But there do need to be considerations about design. Comments are welcome, about the writing and the content.

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