Former tech experts are warning their inventions have created a world of perpetual distraction that could ultimately end in disaster.
The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom profiled Justin Rosenstein, the computer coding expert who created Facebook’s “like” feature, as a member of the growing “refusenik” counterculture. Describing them as “heretics” who are walking away from the very technology they created, the newspaper reports:
There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”
But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.
Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.
The article also delved into the work of Nir Eyal, a consultant to the tech industry who teaches companies how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products. It also features former Google engineer Tristan Harris, who alleges that human minds can be “hijacked” by social media technology:
“All of us are jacked into this system,” he says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”
Harris, who has been branded “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, insists that billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives.
A graduate of Stanford University, Harris studied under BJ Fogg, a behavioural psychologist revered in tech circles for mastering the ways technological design can be used to persuade people.
Harris says the tech industry lacks any form of ethics, but is instead driven by a society driven by consumerism and an advertising economy. His sentiments are echoed by venture capitalist-turned tech critic Roger McNamee:
McNamee chooses his words carefully. “The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences,” he says. “The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.”
But how can Google and Facebook be forced to abandon the business models that have transformed them into two of the most profitable companies on the planet?
McNamee believes the companies he invested in should be subjected to greater regulation, including new anti-monopoly rules. In Washington, there is growing appetite, on both sides of the political divide, to rein in Silicon Valley. But McNamee worries the behemoths he helped build may already be too big to curtail. “The EU recently penalised Google $2.42bn for anti-monopoly violations, and Google’s shareholders just shrugged,” he says.
Rosenstein, the Facebook “like” co-creator, believes there may be a case for state regulation of “psychologically manipulative advertising”, saying the moral impetus is comparable to taking action against fossil fuel or tobacco companies. “If we only care about profit maximisation,” he says, “we will go rapidly into dystopia.”
These dynamics, the report concludes, are leading to a point in the not-too-distant future in which democracy, as we know it, ceases to exist—but also questions whether or not we will be able to discern that it has happened.