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The revolt of the Silicon Valley insiders

In my briefing last month on Big Tech’s Tipping Point, I noted the growing chorus of ex-employees who have begun to speak up about the dark side of the companies they helped build.

Now they’ve gone one step further. They’ve banded together on a raft of initiatives to shed light on that dark side, and challenge the uncritical passivity of so many millions of consumers. There are plenty of critics of social media out there. But these are insiders.

They have established the Center for Humane Technology, and they aren’t pulling their punches.

“Our society is being hijacked by technology,” they begin. “What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.”

And they continue:

“What we feel as addiction is part of something much bigger. There’s an invisible problem that’s affecting all of society. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google have produced amazing products that have benefited the world enormously. But these companies are also caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our own behavior.

“Unfortunately, what’s best for capturing our attention isn’t best for our well-being:

  • Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship.
  • Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self worth.
  • Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.
  • YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep.

These are not neutral products.
They are part of a system designed to addict us.”

As reported in the New York Times, the backers of the new Centre know exactly what they are talking about.

“We were on the inside,” said Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google who is heading the new group. “We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works.”

The report continued: “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 largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and where are we pointing them?” said Mr Harris. “We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.”