IT Group Takes on Tech Addiction

By Brian Collett

Disillusioned former executives of Silicon Valley giants, including Apple, Facebook and Google, have started a campaign group to tackle the growing tech addiction menace.

The group is led by Tristan Harris, a mid-thirties professional who worked as a design ethicist at Google but now accuses the company of encouraging excessive tech use.

Harris, whose Google job was to develop the means for technology to influence “ethically” the thoughts and actions of billions of users, told the e-publication Quartz: “All the tech companies profit the more attention they extract out of human vessels. They profit by drilling into our brains to pull the attention out of it, by using persuasion techniques to keep them hooked.”

A particularly worrying danger of heavy social media usage, the campaign maintains, is depression.

One of the contentions of the group, known as the Center for Humane Technology, is that moderating the visuals on mobile telephones to make them less attractive could save some users from addiction.

The campaign includes a barrage of advertising in schools to educate parents, students and even children about tech addiction hazards, an appeal to Congress to write basic consumer protections into law, and a call for a tech designer’s Hippocratic Oath.

Its message to Washington and Silicon Valley from a February conference hosted by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based children’s advocacy group, was that if government and the industry will not deal with the issue, perhaps the public will.

Harris’s earlier non-profit initiative, Time Well Spent, which he established after leaving Google, was aimed at triggering change in the industry through public pressure, the development of ethical design standards, design education and policy recommendations to prevent “nefarious manipulation.”

Common Sense Media is a partner in the new campaign and is pouring millions of dollars into it.

Harris has an IT science degree from Stanford University with an emphasis on computer interaction. He spent three years with Google before forming Time Well Spent in 2016.

Today he says that without action the cause is lost. He told the Common Sense Media conference: “We cannot live in this world.”

Harris has scientific backing from Professor Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who pointed out that computer game achievements give a child a dopamine hit.

Lustig said: “It tells you, ‘This feels good – I want more’. It is not a drug but it might as well be. It does the same thing.”
He quoted research showing a rise in depression and suicidal thoughts among young people in the past eight years.

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and a member of the campaign group, admitted he was horrified by his contributions to the social media company.

He said: “This is an opportunity for me to correct a wrong.”

 

Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons

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