Tuesday 27 March 2018

Ex-tech workers plead with Facebook: Consider the harm you're doing to kids

A gathering of Silicon Valley alumni and Washington lobbyists warns of the links between tech addiction, anxiety, obesity and depression, writes David Smith in the Guardian. Read on: 

The leaders of Facebook should consider their own children when they make decisions that could harm millions of young people hooked on the social network, activists said on Wednesday.

A gathering of Silicon Valley alumni and whistleblowers and Washington lobbyists in the US capital heard warnings of potential links between tech addiction and sleep disruption, poor academic performance, anxiety, depression, obesity, social isolation and suicide.

Conference organiser James Steyer, chief executive and founder of Common Sense Media, a not-for-profit promoting safe technology and media for children, criticised giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. “Talk is cheap. Show me the money. Period.”

The conference was organised by Common Sense Media, a not-for-profit promoting safe technology and media for children. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
There were pleas for Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder and chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, to apply values they advocate for their own families. Steyer added: “Mark and Sheryl at Facebook are good people. They are parents too. They have to think about their own kids when making a big picture decision there.”

Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, echoed this sentiment:

“What I’d like [Sheryl Sandberg] to do is to bring the same values she has at home into the office. Remember that you have to have empathy. If you view your users as fuel stock for your profits you’re not going to make the world a better place.”

McNamee is among a group of former tech employees behind the Center for Humane Technology, committed to “reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests”, raising alarms about the effects of smartphones and social networks on people’s emotional and intellectual development. It has received $7m in funding from Common Sense Media for a lobbying campaign to combat tech addiction, reminiscent of past anti-smoking drives, as well as adverts targeting 55,000 schools in the US.

As a backlash against Silicon Valley gathers momentum, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff, speaking in Davos last month, called for Facebook to be regulated like a cigarette company because of the addictive and harmful properties of social media. McNamee finds this a useful metaphor.

“Because there was a situation where marketing was used to convince a whole generation, particularly women, that smoking was a really good thing for them. Franklin Foer in his book [World Without Mind: the Existential Threat of Big Tech] talks about how after the second world war the convenience was applied to food so we went to TV dinners and nobody told us they were loading them up with sugar fat and salt and now we have an obesity epidemic because we didn’t know until it was too late. I hope it’s not too late here.”

 It starts to really go deep into them and actually redefine their identity and their meaning of friendship
Tristan Harris, former Google ethicist
McNamee was one of the speakers at a Truth About Tech conference in Washington on Wednesday. Among the issues raised was how school teachers use Facebook groups for homework assignments, making it unavoidable for many pupils.

Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and founder of the Center for Humane Technology, was introduced by Steyer as “the first major whistleblower who came out of the really key Silicon Valley companies to come forward and say, ‘Some of what we’re doing is really not OK; some of what we’ve been designing was designed to be addiction or manipulative, particularly to young people’.”

Harris said he witnessed how Google’s Gmail service was “hijacking the mind” and warned of an “existential threat” posed by a digital world that rips apart the old social ecologies. He described the digital environment as completely unregulated “like the wild west: build a casino wherever you want”.

In an interview, Harris pointed to examples such as Snapchat streaks which shows the number of days in a row that each teenager has communicated with each friend. “It creates this false sense of, ‘I’ve got to keep this thing going’,” he said, adding, “It starts to really go deep into them and actually redefine their identity and their meaning of friendship. They think that they’re not friends if they don’t keep that streak going.”

‘They treated children as basically an opportunity to get customers at a very young age.’ Photograph: Noah Berger/AP
Harris remains hopeful, however, that public media pressure can force the tech companies to reform. “We just have to get clear about what we don’t like.”

Sandy Parakilas was an operations manager on the platform team at Facebook from 2011 to 2012. He became concerned about the impact on children and how their interests appeared to be secondary. “My opinion is that they treated the opportunity of children as basically an opportunity to get customers at a very young age,” he said.

“So considering all of the anecdotal research and some of the more scientific research that’s coming out now I think there is very clearly a negative impact. I don’t think these companies have the business incentive to regulate themselves. They need some external pressure and regulation to ensure that they are actually doing the right thing.”

Aza Raskin, a veteran of Mozilla and Firefox who is now chief strategy officer at the Center for Humane Technology, echoed Parakilas’s thoughts on the effects on youths: “We end up replacing children’s sense of identity and self-worth with how many likes they get.”

In Raskin’s view, the tech sector’s conduct is worse than that of cigarette manufacturers. “Tobacco only gets so addictive and tobacco doesn’t know anything particularly about you or your habits. ... Imagine three years or five years from now when our new digital tobacco knows all of your habits, knows the habits of your friends and can start crawling down your brain stem to figure out what uniquely addicts you. That’s the world that we’re thinking about, like if you think about when you point AI [artificial intelligence] at a chessboard. Once it wins, it wins; humans can never get better.”

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