The dark side of technology is receiving increasingly more attention. The resistance to fake news, filter bubbles and smartphone addiction is growing. Under pressure from public opinion, tech companies such as Facebook promise to better their ways. But we can't trust that Silicon Valley will fix those problems themselves, so state writer Ben Tarnoff and academic Moira Weigel.
‘God only knows what it does to our children's brains’, said Sean Parker about the addictive effects of Facebook. Parker was the first president of Facebook but left the company in 2015. Every like gives the user a shot of dopamine through which they remain active on the platform, said Parker at the end of last year during an event in Philadelphia. The addictive element has purposely been built into Facebook, said Parker. ‘The idea behind the building of Facebook was: ‘how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’. De former Facebook president said that they succeeded in this by ‘exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology’.
Parker is not the only Silicon Valley insider who criticises the addictive aspects of digital products. Tristan Harris was a user interface designer who saw close-up how apps and websites were designed to capture attention. He saw, for example, how elements that make gambling machines so addictive, are applied to digital products. While he worked at Google as a ‘design ethicist’, he founded the non-profit Time Well Spent in 2013. Through his organisation Harris pleads for more people-friendly digital products that respect the time and attention of their users.
Harris drew quite a bit of attention with his plea. He received backing in the form of money and manpower from the tech world and started a new organisation: the Center for Humane Technology. The initiative us support by, among others, Justin Rosenstein, co-inventor of the like button, Evan Sharp, co-founder of Pinterest and technology critic Tim Wu.
Blind spot for fundamental problems
But tinkering with the interface of digital products will not solve the fundamental problems of internet technology, argue Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel in an article in The Guardian. They call Harris and co tech-humanists who oppose the manipulative design decisions of Silicon Valley. Tarnoff and Weigel: ‘But these decisions are symptoms of a larger issue: the fact that the digital infrastructure that increasingly shape our personal, social and civil lives, are owned and controlled by a few billionaires. Because it ignores the question of power, the diagnosis by the tech-humanists comes up short.’
The work done by the tech-humanists could even be misused by the tech industry, argue Tarnoff and Weigel. The increasing resistance towards the dark side of technology forces the tech companies to make changes to prevent an exodus of users. By taking over the agenda of the tech-humanists, they can remove the resistance without introducing any fundamental reforms. Mark Zuckerberg already appears to be applying this strategy, write the authors.
At the beginning of this year, the CEO announced that Facebook will focus more on quality instead of quantity. Facebook will no longer attempt to keep users on the platform as long as possible, but offer them a more valuable experience. Users would have fewer media messages and advertising served up and have more interaction with friends. He literally used the words: ‘time well spent’ and with that appropriates the tech-humanists' jargon. But, write Tarnoff and Weigel, interaction between users and their friends results in more valuable data for Facebook than interaction with media messages. Zuckerberg pretends to appease his users, but foremost looks at his own interests first.
‘Rather than trying to not try to humanise technology’, write Tarnoff and Weigel. ‘we should be trying to democratise it. We should be demanding that society as a whole gets to decide how we live with technology – rather than the small group of people who have captured society's wealth.’
Photo: Mark Zuckerberg F8 2018 Keynote. Photographer: Anthony Quintano. CC BY 2.0 licence.