Social media has its benefits, but it sucks our attention and pulls our concentration from more important things. It diminishes our manners, it distracts us from work and family. It coarsens our communications skills.
Now, in recognition of its downsides, industry’s early trailblazers are attempting to reverse their own work.
It’s like a classic case of a scientist whose experiments have gone horribly wrong. Dr. Frankenstein has suddenly realized that his life's work created an ugly monster, and he must figure out what to do with it before people are hurt.
For the early social media and technology workers, it has taken them years to fully realize just how much of an impact technology imposes on our daily lives. No, it’s not that the machines are developing brains of their own and are plotting to overthrow us. It's the fact that technology is being developed to harness the vulnerabilities of the mind, especially children. That’s something everyone should be concerned about.
The cohort is creating a union of concerned experts called the Center for Humane Technology. Along with the nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense Media, it also plans an anti-tech addiction lobbying effort and an ad campaign at 55,000 public schools in the United States.
The campaign, titled The Truth About Tech, will be funded with $7 million from Common Sense and capital raised by the Center for Humane Technology. Common Sense also has $50 million in donated media and airtime from partners including Comcast and DirecTV. It will be aimed at educating students, parents and teachers about the dangers of technology, including the depression that can come from heavy use of social media.
“We were on the inside,” said Tristan Harris, a former ethicist at Google who is leading the new group. “We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works.”
The group is modeling its campaign off of old anti-smoking initiatives. It believes that because of how technology works on the mind, it's important to address its dangers.
In recent months, a growing number of people and companies have made known their suspicions that too much technology is not healthy, especially for young children. Indeed, I recently wrote right here about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s reluctance to allow his nephew to have any social media access. Facebook investor Sean Parker also commented on the social media network’s effects by saying “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains” (that should be very telling).
The center will have a vast array of former Silicon Valley tech experts, each of whom is becoming increasingly concerned about society at-large’s addiction to social media and tech devices.
Apart from Mr. Harris, the center includes Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager; Lynn Fox, a former Apple and Google communications executive; Dave Morin, a former Facebook executive; Justin Rosenstein, who created Facebook’s Like button and is a co-founder of Asana; Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook; and Renée DiResta, a technologist who studies bots.
The website will actually target technical engineers by providing them information about their own products and offering suggestions for how to make their products healthier for consumers.
Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor, has joined the group because he’s literally horrified by what Facebook is doing to people.
“Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger,” he said. “And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment.” But this new group offers him an opportunity to sound the alarm, something he said he believes is of the utmost necessity.
“This is an opportunity for me to correct a wrong,” he said.
If the engineers and investors are warning us about the dangers it poses, that technology is hurting us as people, it may be time to pay attention and take a close look at ourselves and our social media habits, myself included.