Google’s former ethicist says better design is key to tackling our tech addiction

Image: Reuters/Eduard Korniyenko
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People who talked about how too much technology was bad for kids used to be labeled luddites and alarmists. Now the problem of tech addiction is so widely accepted that the people who helped create the problem are banding together to try and fix it.

At “The Truth about Tech: How Kids get Hooked,” a day-long conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by Common Sense, a nonprofit organization that reviews and rates media, Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google, said tech has to change its design—for the sake of humanity.

“I see this as game over until we change course,” Harris said. “We have to redesign all of it with a different, more compassionate view of human nature.”

Harris, who recently founded the Centre for Humane Technology, said we should think of ourselves as residents of a digital city, from the moment we wake up and dive into our phones. “That environment is designed by Apple and Google,” he said. “That city is completely unregulated – it’s the Wild West – it’s build a casino wherever you want, maximize developer access to do whatever they want to people.”

As he explains in a 2014 TED talk, in order to manage the endless stream of notifications and information we receive on our phones, we need zoning laws like cities have, with designated places for kids and shopping, and stronger demarcation between tools that help us interact with the world outside our phones (calendars, text messages) and those that suck us into them (social media).

He suggested a few immediate actions companies like Apple could take to make smartphones less addictive, including a default grey home screen rather than a color one. As Nellie Gray wrote recently for the New York Times, “Companies use colors to encourage subconscious decisions” about which apps we open, and how often we do so. Greyscale home screens give users more control over how they distribute their attention.

Harris also suggested that changing vibrations and notifications, so that direct messages from people we know are prioritized over Beyonce’s latest Instagram update. The uncertainty of not knowing what might be coming can make us more compulsive about checking—perhaps because phone notifications follow the model of “random reinforcement” (essentially, reward at irregular intervals), which is known in psychology to be far more difficult to break free of than regular, expected rewards.

The Center for Humane Technology is teaming up with Common Sense Media to lobby for legislation to study the effects of technology on kids and to educate parents and children about technology’s effects. (The group has $7 million in funding, and another $50 million in donated media and airtime from partners including Comcast and DirecTV.) Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense said the impact of tech on our kids was one of the “most important cultural issues facing everyone in the room, but also our entire nation and the globe.”

Harris expressed hope that Apple, Samsung, and Google may change their phone designs to help us cope with our vulnerabilities to tech addiction, rather than to advantage of them. It would be harder to change Facebook and YouTube, he noted, because these kinds of companies’ business models depend on keeping us hooked.

“When you wake up in the morning, you have certain goals for your life or for your kids,” he said. But when you open YouTube, “it doesn’t know any of those goals, it has one goal: To make you forget your goals and to keep you watching as many YouTube videos as possible.”

The drumbeat of complaints against tech is reaching a fever pitch, as other high-profile technologists join in to warn about its dangers to children and society at large.

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor, also joined the Center for Humane Technology—in part because he was terrified at the site he helped create. “I contributed to creating something that created great harm,” he said. “I want them [Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg] to join me in fixing this.” (So far, no such luck, he noted.)

Last year, Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s original investors and its first president, said of Facebook, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist who was an early employee at Facebook, said in November that the social network was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Apple CEO Tim Cook told The Guardian in January that he would not let his nephew on social media.

Also in January, two giant investors sent a letter to Apple asking the company to address how technology affects its youngest users, suggesting that the company increase funding for research on the subject and change its design to help better parents limit kids’ screen time. Pediatric and mental health experts recently called on Facebook last week to abandon Messenger Kids, a service introduced for kids as young as 6.

Harris said developers have to think big to help address the social crisis. “It’s not about making this an individual choice, about how to make the design work for you,” he said. “It’s how make defaults work for everybody in the shortest possible time.”