Gadget addiction prompts calls for a “slow tech” movement

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Some Silicon Valley insiders are comparing tech to big tobacco or even gambling — eager to sell people on a pleasure that is dangerously addictive.

Social media played a big role in 2016, from President-Elect Donald Trump’s tweeting to the spread of disinformation on the web to the constant rush of daily viral stories, both entertaining and anxiety-inducing.

Clara Jeffrey, the editor of Mother Jones magazine, told the New York Times about the “sense of us being addicted to it, like a dopamine drip.”

The power and addictiveness of social media now has some Silicon Valley insiders comparing the tech industry to big tobacco, fast food or even gambling, as in, eager to sell people on a pleasure that could be dangerous for our psychological health.

Tristan Harris was a “product philosopher” at Google who now runs an organization called Time Well Spent.

“My phone is a slot machine. Every time I check my phone I’m playing the slot machine to see what am I going to get,” Harris said at a TEDx conference in Brussels. “I’m a designer, I know exactly how the psychology of this works, I know exactly what’s going on. But it doesn’t leave me with any choice. I still just get sucked into it.”

Harris is making a plea to his colleagues in the tech industry to develop an ethical approach to designing their products.

“We’re entering this time in Silicon Valley where there is this generation of tech elites that is getting older, having kids and increasingly has the peace of mind that comes from having a few million dollars in the bank, and they’re now stepping back to take stock of what they’ve created. And in many cases they’ve been really taken aback by some of the more negative side effects of these software and services,” said Bianca Bosker, former executive tech editor for The Huffington Post.

Bosker profiled Harris and his group in The Atlantic, and told DnA that while we blame ourselves for constantly checking e-mail, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and other apps, “tech addiction is not just the product of poor willpower or self-control. We live in this attention economy, which means that companies have this incentive to get our attention and keep it as long as possible. In most cases there are thousands of engineers on the other side of our screen whose whole job and work life is really to keep us coming back more and more for those tech hits.”

Bosker called Harris “the ultimate tech insider.” He studied computer science at Stanford University, worked at Apple as an intern, created a very successful startup and sold it to Google, and then worked at Google.

While some Google employees were receptive to Harris’ ideas, “he found that he ran up against inertia internally,” Bosker said. “Products that needed to be fixed took priority over this larger systematic rethinking of the status quo.”

Photo by Donna Cleveland via Flickr/CC.
Photo by Donna Cleveland via Flickr/CC. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

So Harris went on to co-found Time Well Spent, which claims to be “a non-profit movement to align technology with our humanity.” It argues that engineers have a moral responsibility to think more carefully about how their decisions influence people’s lives. It aims to create a sort of Hippocratic Oath for designers, a pledge to not waste users’ time.

But are people sufficiently enraged at becoming addicted or are they enjoying being addicted too much to get too upset about it?

“I think the issue right now is, in general, people blame themselves for their tech addiction and they’re not aware of the manipulation that’s taking place. So it’s hard to be outraged at this point. As consumers wisen up to the way that their self-control is being short circuited through software, I think there’s reason to hope that we will see people really demanding change and asking companies to put a stop to some of that psychological manipulation,” Bosker said.

So how does Google itself feel about the notion of an ethical framework for software design?

“I am aware of Tristin Harris’s work and certainly actually very inspired by it. I think you know when design gets into these more moral and ethical issues I think it becomes particularly interesting and socially relevant beyond aesthetics and other questions like that,” said Rob Giampietro, Creative Lead for Google’s Material Design and its Design Outreach Team, based in New York.

Giampietro’s team develops the user interface framework and systems that Google uses, such as the icons and color palettes used in applications.

“We’ve actually shared that design system with the world. And so there are over a million material design apps in the Google Play store right now that allows there to be a variety of perspectives and approaches to some of the problems that Tristan raises,” he said.

In addition, Giampietro said, Google has simplified notification controls for the newest version of Android phones so that users can disable distracting notifications across the system, rather than having to do it app by app. The company could also use machine learning to make repetitive tasks easier, such as scheduling meetings.

A third and deeper goal, Giampietro suggests, could be creating “a systemwide awareness of what a user is doing at all points” to avoid interrupting the user’s workflow. But while that might satisfy Harris’ demands for distraction-reducing technology, Giampietro said, that goal would require a tradeoff for users between “less control over more awareness on the part of the system.”

“I struggle with the same things that many users struggle with, in terms of limiting time on a phone or putting it down to spend time with family. I think that’s a very 21st century problem. It has to do with an overwhelming amount of information and a different relationship to the work day. I think there are a number of social factors beyond simply interfaces. But I think we need to think about all of those holistically,” Giampietro said.

“I’m a great believer in [Marshall] McLuhan’s adage that ‘we shape our tools and our tools shape us’… we’re at the early stages of evolving with these tools and learning how to be better humans alongside them.”