The Silicon Valley narrative put forward by startups and tech giants is that technology is a democratizing force for good that’s connecting the world and bringing us closer together. In recent weeks, however, more of these technology architects are admitting that these products were built to be addictive. These services do not have your best interest at heart.
In 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his social media company’s new mission statement was to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” That sounds all well and good, but Facebook’s first president Sean Parker offered a competing mission statement of Facebook’s power when he was interviewed by Axios that was less than flattering. Parker said that Facebook is “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” The social media network, which serves more than a billion people, “probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’
“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ ” Parker said.
Getting you addicted to your smartphone was not by accident, it was planned all along. Parker said that he and Zuckerberg “understood consciously” what they were doing behind Facebook’s persuasive design. “And we did it anyway.”
Not just Facebook, of course
While Parker acknowledged the downsides of being addicted to technology, other companies are proudly proclaiming their bid for your attention. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his company is competing with your bedtime. “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep,” he told Fast Company.
Loren Brichter, the designer who created the pull-to-refresh mechanism, which is widely used in apps, recognizes now that the feature is like a slot machine. Brichter said that the addictive side effects were “not something I was mature enough to think about.” Tristan Harris, an ex-Google product manager who has become a rogue critic of his industry, told the Guardian that the power that a few engineers can have over our minds is the most urgent problem facing us today.
“A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today,” Harris said.
Although alarm bells are ringing, the damage is done. The apps were built. The features competing for your likes, swipes, scrolls, and time have gone mainstream and are here to stay.
Wresting back control over technology starts with raising awareness of what looking at technology does to our brain. Although self-described immature inventors may have made the technology defaults we use today, we still have time to make choices on what we’ll do next.