Tried to put down your smartphone but can’t? Are you just living for likes, or agitated by the echo chamber in your news feed? Do you feel isolated even though your social network is thriving online?
If the answer is “yes” to those questions, then Tristan Harris is fighting to save you.
An ex-Google design ethicist, Harris cofounded the Time Well Spent movement and the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) to combat the “existential threat” of unchecked technological power over humanity, from digital addiction and information overload to Twitter bots and political polarisation.
CHT is trying to halt what it calls the “downgrading” of humans by smartphones and social media – within an “extractive” attention economy where Silicon Valley firms profit from “playing tricks” on people’s minds.
“More than two billion people – a psychological footprint bigger than Christianity – are jacked into social platforms,” says a pamphlet from CHT. “Algorithms recommend increasingly extreme, outrageous topics to keep us glued to tech sites fed by advertising … It’s a race to the bottom of the brainstem.”
The Humane Tech movement – largely based in the United States – is gaining foot soldiers in the battle to restore a healthy relationship between humans and technology. A burgeoning number of activists – including coders, investors, educators and enthusiasts – reject decisions made by big tech companies that they say go against the wellbeing of users.
Many movement luminaries, including Harris, are gathering in New York City for Friday’s Human After All conference – aiming to redesign technology to fortify the social fabric, not exploit our vulnerabilities.
One software developer heeding that call is Andrew Dunn, whose Siempo launcher for Android mobile devices bills itself as the “first smartphone interface designed to protect you“.
Looking to “mitigate tech addition”, Siempo aims to reduce overuse by making icons less appealing, turning home screens to grayscale, and presenting grouped notifications at scheduled intervals.
Dunn hopes to move business models away from seeking to hook users by making systems more addictive to an arrangement where people “are paying for things to enrich their lives”.
Many companies “benefit from the problem more than trying to solve it”, Dunn told Al Jazeera.
‘Put down your phone’
Several big tech corporations have already deployed programmes to help users track how long they spend on their devices – largely a result, advocates say, of the Time Well Spent push by Tristan Harris starting in 2016, after he left Google.
Apple unveiled Screen Time last year to offer personal usage statistics, schedule downtime and impose limits for certain apps. Last June the company said it wanted to “help customers understand and take control of the time they spend interacting with their iOS devices”.
The changes also included Do Not Disturb mode improvements to silence ringers and dim displays. Batched notifications also help users control the deluge of information.
Google’s Digital Wellbeing service similarly seeks to provide balance, with the company suggesting that “technology should improve life, not distract from it”. Advocating better habits to meet personal goals, Google encourages taking digital sabbaths and having family discussions about healthier routines.
With its Pixel phone, Google has published ways to “find out how much time you spend in apps” and “make it easier to put down your phone”.
But Dunn says the company’s move is a drop in the bucket for Android users, because Google can only control Pixel phones – but not the launchers on devices made by Samsung, HTC, and others.
He also said, in general, that tech companies’ recent modifications are insufficient, like “casinos putting up clocks and stats, but not changing the gambling itself”.
Referring to the complexity of altering users’ psychological attachment styles, Dunn added, “There’s no silver bullet”.
Many of the “techlash” activists proposing digital minimalism are former employees of social media firms who have since spoken out about digital addiction.
Giancarlo Pitocco is a digital wellbeing expert who runs Purposeful, an organisation that teaches people about the distractive use of technology. A former Facebook and Instagram employee, he told Al Jazeera that his own routines were harmful at his old job.
Pitocco said that – like most users – he would experience a “dopamine hit from checking the phone and seeing the notifications … Getting a fix every time I reached for the buzz or shiny red dot on the screen”.
But, he added, neurochemistry is not the issue. Pitocco argues companies take advantage of feelings in a manipulative way to achieve financial objectives. “The product they are selling is inventory of advertising space,” he said. “Get more attention, more people, compete with other platforms, and vie for that attention.”
“In addition to the ethical or moral quandary there, people have surrendered their intelligence, decision-making power, and free will,” Pitocco said, adding that picking up one’s phone an average 150 times a day – as research shows millennials do – has led to an “epidemic of anxiety, stress, and depression unlike any the health profession has ever seen”.
For Pitocco, poor digital consumption is the equivalent of junk food, with many users opting for “fats, oils and sweets”. But he affirms that not all time spent with a screen is bad, depending on how and why we tune in.
Because going to sleep while simultaneously browsing Instagram and watching Netflix may not be the best way to achieve emotional freedom and feel good about oneself, Purposeful aims to make people more conscious about the impact of technology.
For its part, Facebook also created tools last year to give users more control over their experiences. The company said that its time-management suite was developed in collaboration with mental health experts and that Facebook use should be “intentional, positive and inspiring”.
‘Checkmate on humanity’
Another activist, Nina Hersher of the Digital Wellness Collective, believes tech companies do not have sinister motives in attracting our attention.
Whereas CHT is focused on policy, Hersher’s group organises grassroots efforts to promote digital mindfulness and tech-life balance.
Hersher prefers a reformist rather than revolutionary approach. She considers technology not “evil” but “beautiful”.
“It’s everywhere,” said Hersher, adding that her view echoes that of Doteveryone, a United Kingdom-based group that champions “responsible technology for a fairer future”.
“We created it. We’re the only people who can model our behaviour,” she told Al Jazeera, juxtaposing the tone of her advocacy with the vilification some activists employ. “We’re healthy tech, not anti-tech.”
Agnostic to the political and economic power of big tech, Hersher said, “We don’t love it but … we’d like to find a way to work with them”.
In contrast, CHT often uses the term “parasitic” and says the “outpacing of human weaknesses is only getting worse”.
“Unless we change course right now, this is checkmate on humanity,” the organisation says, adding that downgrading people lowers “economic productivity, shared truth, creativity”.
CHT calls for “a new set of incentives that accelerate a market competition to fix these problems” and make tech companies “fiduciaries to our values”.
Among their proposed solutions is for product teams to integrate “humane” social-systems design to compete for trust, not attention. CHT also says shareholders should demand a shift away from “engagement maximising” and that venture capitalists could fund such a transition.
“Tech workers can raise their voices around the harms of human downgrading,” declares CHT, recommending that policymakers should act now “to reverse kids [from] being downgraded”.