A new cohort of ex-tech insiders have created the Center for Humane Technology, a new movement intended to resist the pressures of tech companies like Facebook and Google, which the Center’s members say are having a deleterious effect on society.
Actually, that may be putting it mildly. One of the Center’s most prominent members, Tristan Harris, is the founder of nonprofit Time Well Spent and a former Google employee famous for his cutting descriptions of what social media has done to society. Some examples:
“… a civilization-scale mind control machine …”
“They profit by drilling into our brains to pull the attention out of it …”
“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and where are we pointing them? We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.”
Another founding member is Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who told the New York Times, “Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger. And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment.”
That quote is particularly telling, since it presages one of the Center’s proposed solutions: appealing to smartphone makers, including Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, for help cutting down on tech’s addictive edge:
Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft can help solve the problem, because keeping people hooked to the screen isn’t their business model. They can redesign their devices and core interfaces to protect our minds from constant distractions, minimize screen time, protect our time in relationships, and replace the App Store marketplace of apps competing for usage with a marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society.
Judging by what CEO Tim Cook has recently said about social media — namely, that he wouldn’t allow his nephew to use it, and feels overuse of technology doesn’t do anyone any good — Apple may be open to hearing what the Center has to say.
Appealing to the OS makers for help is more likely to get results than just asking the tech companies to stop doing things that work for them. Apple, and Samsung don’t necessarily have as much to gain as Facebook, for example, from making sure their users are connected and look at ads every few seconds. While they can’t do all the work, they can change the implement that gets the addictive sites to your brain.
That said, I think it’s possible the tech companies in question would like to fix themselves, to a degree. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg invoked the name of Harris’ nonprofit when describing his intentions to fix his site’s problems: “One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.”
But this movement might be the third-party catalyst sites like Google and Facebook need to be forced to actually follow through with their fixes.