Facebook, Google and Apple all incredibly powerful companies that gave birth to the modern era of technology. Now ex-employees that helped build these giants are having second thoughts about what they helped to create.
A new initiative called The Center for Humane Technology, formed this year by leading Silicon Valley engineers and investors, is warning us how technology is being used to manipulate our behaviour, and encouraging a resistance to the power and influence of the tech giants.
We are all familiar with the feeling. The buzz you get when you see the many notifications pop up on your iPhone or when Netflix asks you if you want to continue your late-night binge. These features may provide us with a sense of instant gratification at the time, but these distractions are proving to be detrimental to our health.
“Ex-Apple employee Tristan Harris views this issue as an existential threat.”
The centre which was co-founded by Tristan Harris, a former Apple software engineer and Google design ethicist and product philosopher is working to humanise the products we have become so dependent on. He’s so worried about the changes happening to our attention that Tristan Harris views this issue as an existential threat.
In his crusade, Harris has explained how in order to compete for attention and usage of their apps and in turn increase revenue from advertising, tech companies condition our habits and online behaviour. And this level of intervention and control has to stop. After all, he says technology is “supposed to give you superpowers”, rather than turn you into a mindless robot driven by impulses generated by apps.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, following the recent scandals involving Cambridge Analytica and election interference, Facebook has been keen to get in on the action. The latest tech leader to join the center as an adviser is Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s original team members and co-founders. He hopes that this will herald a new era of transparency, in which there is an open conversation between executives and consumers about how the data is used and who is getting paid for it. And most importantly, he hopes that this will finally mean that the user, rather than the company, is the one benefitting.
But many are questioning whether this might be too little too late. There is no denying that these technologies have taken an irreparable hold over our lives, and dramatically changed the way in which we communicate and interact with each other.
“There is no denying that these technologies have taken an irreparable hold over our lives.”
And the hardest hit are the youngest members of society. A survey released by Deloitte in November 2017 found that Americans between the ages of 18 to 24 have an alarming obsession with their phones, looking at it an average of 86 times per day, and many admit to feeling totally lost without it.
These issues have been apparent for some time and pioneers in the area have been calling for a turnaround for years. They include Jaron Lanier and investors like Jana Partners and CalSTRS. The key question here is how will we combat this issue if more and more of us are connecting and staying online longer. We’re expecting 30 billion devices to be connected by 2020 so the deluge will continue.
Tech addiction, some social scientists say, hasn’t even properly begun yet. The real proof will come when our behaviour starts to change, and for that, we could be waiting a long long time.