The Center for Humane Technology, a group of prominent industry insiders concerned about the willingness and ability of certain tech companies to control the actions and attention of billions of people, wants to liberate us from tech addiction. Its goal is to spark a mass movement for more ethical technology in order to put pressure on Silicon Valley giants that the Center’s leadership says has been entirely missing in Washington. Tristan Harris, the former Google design ethicist who has been called the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience, has said, “I see this as game over, unless we change course.”
The concern of Harris and others in the tech world, is the need for people to understand the way tech tools are tailor-made to make addicts of us all, forever altering the way billions of people think, feel and interact with one another. To this end the group has partnered with Common Sense, the leading advocacy organization of kids in the digital age in a campaign to educate consumers and put pressure on the tech industry to make its products less intrusive and less addictive.
According to Harris the most powerful tech companies in the world have created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids. This has been described further as altering the chemistry of kids brains. Pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig explains how collecting coins in Minecraft rewards kids brains with a hit of dopamine which feels good and makes them want more.
Over-stimulating dopamine neurons causes them to die, and according to Lustig causes changes in the brain that manifest themselves as mental illness. Research has shown spikes in the rate of depression and suicidal thoughts among kids. Tech is designed to give users constant rewards. “It’s not a drug, but it might a well be,” according to Lustig.
While there is wide concern about the role mobile devices increasingly play in young people’s lives, experts are split over the question of whether internet addiction is a legitimate disorder. Actual evidence of addictiveness and harm is more complex than the colloquial use of addiction as a descriptor would suggest.
What comes to mind is “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” written by media guru Neil Postman in 1985. At that time, it was the emerging power of television that was of great concern, and Postman saw the medium’s entertainment value as a present-day “soma,” the fictitious pleasure drug in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
Drawing on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, Postman makes the point that form excludes content, meaning a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. The medium of television runs counter to the kind of rational argument integral to print. Television de-emphasizes the quality of information in favor of satisfying the need for entertainment.
Postman describes how oral, literate, and television cultures radically differ in the processing and prioritization of information and argues that each medium is appropriate for a different kind of knowledge. The faculties requisite for rational inquiry are weakened by televised viewing. According to Postman television news had become a form of entertainment programming and that the change in public discourse meant that politics had ceased to be about a candidate’s ideas but about whether he/she comes across favorably on television.
The concern of the media experts of the Center for Humane Technology has taken the indictment of technology a step further than Postman’s discussion of the nature of the medium. They want us to understand that technology has been intentionally used commercially to bring about our attention and involvement in ways we do not control and are doing us harm.
The question is, what form of education is now available to us that can counter the newer forms of capturing our minds and attention?