i refuse to do a shock pun

Sarah Bremer, Founder & CEO of Shockly


Hello, friends.

Today I’m interviewing Sarah Bremer, Founder & CEO of Shockly. Shockly is a new entrant into the consumer wearables space that’s developing a product to nudge users into embracing their aspirational selves.

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the interview

The following transcript was dictated but not read.

I am laughing a lot. I’m using laughing as a tool to defuse the tension that would otherwise build because I think your rapport, at times, lacks tact.

Chad Lin: Hi Sarah. Welcome to Special Situations, we’re excited to have you.

Sarah Dermer: Hi Chad. Thanks for having me. It’s exciting to be part of a new project — but I am glad that Preston volunteered himself as tribute for the inaugural post!

C: (laughs) Thanks Sarah. Don’t worry, it’s just a Substack. (laughs)

S: (laughs)

C: Let’s get to it. First — who is Sarah Dermer?

S: (laughs) Well, a lot of things! I’m San Jose Sharks fan, I am no longer a Westworld fan, I like pastels…

C: Right, right, so te-

S: (laughs) Well, I’m really interested in how “the self” is constructed, which of its components are impermanent and which are more permanent, and how people use technology to construct that sense of self.

My dissertation was on the Twitter war between what we can call Roam Research-stans and Notion-stans.

Roam represents folks who are schema-less — they’re constantly reevaluating their beliefs, drawing connections between different ideas. They resist schema because their biggest contributions come from generating novel ideas. And their identity, in part, hinges on the perceived capacity, so they use tools that they think — rightly or wrongly — will reinforce it.

Notion represents folks people who need schema because they are optimizers. People who need to get things done quickly, at a high-level of quality, who need a consistent schema and structure to avoid the sort of digressions and inefficiencies that Roam-stans crave.

C: That’s fascinating. I didn’t think you could do that sort of thing in a formal education environment. That there would be the flexibility to study such, contemporary stuff.

S: (laughs)

C: I mean, we need more Notion-stans, right? We need builders, right?

Is it just me, or are you laughing a lot?

S: I am laughing a lot. I’m using laughing as a tool to defuse the tension that would otherwise build because I think your rapport, at times, lacks tact.

C: That is the type of insight I would expect you to learn in a formal education environment.

C: Okay, so Sarah. What is Shockly?

S: So the problem motivating Shockly is simple, but frustrating. We want to become better people, we want to change ourselves, but we have difficulty following up on those commitments we make to ourselves.

I chose to specialize in identity and self during graduate school because I was fascinated in the novel challenges people face when their self-improvement is directed towards changing their self, or their identity, versus something about their self. You see, there’s your aspirational self, your submerged self, and your behaviors. And it’s a constant struggle to align them.

For instance — many people want to lose weight. You can lose weight by eating healthier and exercising. Those are concrete activities you can see in the real world, and feel good when you do them.

There may be some submerged assumptions about your self that may have been preventing you from consistently following those behaviors consistently, but you know, through sheer will-power you can kind of get the results you want, and even shift those assumptions without consciously reflecting on them.

So compare that wit-

C: With something like I want to be less sexist.

S: (laughs) Exactly.

When we think “I want to be less sexist” the locus of change is the self, which is much harder. We don’t really know what the self is, first of all, and second of all, the self often exists as thoughts that are not immediately connected to actions.

The problem with sexism, for instance, is that it operates through unconscious assumptions, and if you want to be less sexist, it’s very hard to spot those assumptions and correct them. It’s a tiring process to identify and mitigate, identify and replace, etc.

And then you have the issue of not knowing yourself — you can consciously voice corrective thoughts that have not really taken hold in the submerged self, and think you’ve changed when you haven’t.

C: So, enters Shockly.

S: Exactly. So what is Shockly, right? Shockly is a pair of glasses that helps you align your submerged self with your aspirational self.

This is how it works. First, you download our app, and choose something you want to change about your submerged self. Whatever that is. Let’s say you’ve realized that you use laughter as a way of defusing tense situations, instead of addressing the source of your frustration, because you’re afraid of conflict.

Second, you put on the glasses. The glasses will show you a series of images related to the thing you want to change — people confronting others in tense situations, people backing down. There’s also some word association — kind of like an implicit racism test. We also record how your brain responds to these stimuli. So we kind of get a map that associates situation with brain region with degree of response.

Third, our proprietary algorithms crunch all of this data to build a decision engine. The inputs are visual data, which we take from a small lens on the glasses, auditory data which we take from a small microphone embedded into the glasses, and kinetic data, which we take from a gyroscope embedded into the glasses.

The output is shocks, that are calibrated to (a) inform you that you are entering a decision space related to your self-improvement program, and (b) shocks you if you make a decision contrary to your self-improvement program.

Over time, because we naturally want to avoid pain, our behaviors, our submerged self begins to shift towards our aspired self. Even the thought of acting contrary to our goal results in self-disciplining, out of fear of the shock.

C: This is fascinating Sarah. It all tracks so far. A couple of questions. First, why is the kinetic data valuable?

S: Great question. Body language. This is actually part of the reason we chose glasses. When we are deferring, or being demure, or feel insecure, we look down. When we are confident, or trying to project confidence, we look up. That’s valuable data for our decision engine.

C: Got it. That’s inventive. Next question, why is Shockly post-moral? How do you claim agnosticism about use, outcomes, etc, to divert attention away from the fact that your product may have consequences that popular consensus deem immoral? And the fact that those consequences may, you know, be your company’s real value proposition?

S: Great question Chad. Six reasons.

First, we don’t have a workable theory of self. If we don’t understand the self, should we be selling a product that uses violence to change people in ways they do not understand or fully control? I don’t know.

Second, we are agnostic towards how users try to change themselves with our product. Maybe they want to shock themselves into internalizing gender equality, maybe they want to shock themselves out of compassion or empathy for others — i.e. sicario, private equity fund associate, etc. Is that good? I don’t know.

Third, do we want people to change? Go back to the Roam versus Notion debate. Say all these people use our product and decide that they want to be the type of person who takes risks, who works for themselves, who is iconoclastic. What if you end up with a “too many product managers not enough developers” situation? Would that be good? I don’t know.

Fourth, people’s relationships may deteriorate. Many relationships are kind of built on mutual self-delusion. We write fictions about ourselves and others to smooth over interactions.

For instance, if I’m with another psychology researcher, I may play down how interested I am in the subject, and how important my research is to me, lest the conversation becomes competitive. So we could see a lot of really important relationships deteriorate. And maybe some form. Would that be good? I don’t know.

Fifth, what if they got hacked? And some organization got in, and was like, hey I would really like to suppress voter turnout on this ballot initiative, or for this candidate, can I shock people into this?

Last, what if the product works too well? Say that someone is trying to optimize for being their own boss. And we shock them when they defer. They’ll always be deferring to someone, right?

Where do they stop? Their company? Their city? Or what if they think, hey, the most sure way to be my own boss is to eliminate human life on Earth. Then, I cannot have a boss ever, and these painful shocks will stop. Would that be good? I don’t know.

C: So kind of like the paperclip game, but for humans.

S: Exactly Chad. But on the other hand, you know, maybe people have less anxiety, less depression, more fulfilling relationships, better physical health. Would that be a good thing? I don’t know.

C: So how do you make money?

S: We are pre-revenue Chad. But we are developing a revenue model with our corporate partners similar to online advertising, where an organization can choose a demographic, choose a desired perceptual shift, or behavioral shift, and then calibrate shocks to advance the partner’s objective for a time-limited period.

C: How do you inform consumers about that?

S: We’re working through those details.

C: This really connects to what I’ve been thinking about lately. Naval had an interesting tweet yesterday where he said billionaires are boring. I agree. You cannot be trusted with wealth and responsibility if you are unpredictable. So this project makes me wonder, we want people to change, but not too much — how do we calibrate that?

S: That’s a great question Chad. We’re working on that right now with our corporate partners.

C: Who are they?

S: Organizations that rely on heavy engagement — Twitter, Slack, advertising shops, political parties, lobbying firms, etc.

We’re creating a market here. You have people who want to change, and you know, a lot of people don’t know why they want to change or what they want to change into, they just want to feel themselves changing — and other folks who want to facilitate change.

So we have a lot of leverage to create a lot of value because we own that relationship with the user.

C: Got it. Very post-moral Sarah. So, how well does it work? Do you use it?

S: I think it works great Chad. I’m actually using it right now. If you’ve noticed, during the course of this conversation, I’ve laughed less and less — because I was being shocked. And I became gradually more assertive.

C: That is a powerful demonstration Sarah. We need more cooks who eat their own food.

Well, thank you. That was a great conversation Sarah. A lot to reflect on. And I’m really excited to see where you take Shockly.

S: No problem Chad. I’ll keep you updated.

roam notes

I’ve been using Roam as a knowledge management tool for writing this blog (as chronicled in this tweet thread).


Preston Everblue reached out after our interview on his company Homeroom Homies. He informed me that he is considering a pivot, towards prisons as the new incubator.

He noted

Encouraging prisoners to stay at a Homeroom Homies facility until they successfully establish a cash-flow positive start-up will lower recidivism by ensuring that participants have mastered the skills they came to prison to learn. We’re considering not charging tuition and instead taking a small equity stake in those businesses.

It’s a bold idea. We will follow Homeroom Homies closely.