Do you remember a time before we had smartphones and social media? To me, it feels like they were always there. I mean, I can remember back to a time when Facebook was new, and I could access the internet from my phone. But then there’s this period of time when I can’t remember not having a smartphone. Or Twitter not being part of my existence. The development of these tools and technology was to help improve our social experience and get more people to connect. But as we’ve seen over the last couple of years, that’s not what is happening. These communication tools are now a great source of trouble – including fake news, live suicides, hate speech and trolling.
Now what? Well, over the last year, we’ve seen some tech executives – past and present – acknowledge the effects that their products might be having on society in general. Is technology creating a world, in which we are regressing, instead of progressing? Tristan Harris used to be a product manager at Google. Now, he’s a vocal critic of the way that big tech companies design their products in order to keep users hooked. Harris now runs a non-profit organization called Time Well Spent, which aims to stop tech companies from “hijacking our minds”. And that’s the big question – is technology actually hijacking our minds? Or, do we just need a better way of managing ourselves?
Harris was interviewed by Wired, where he gave the following statement:
“[Technology is] possibly the largest source of influence over 2 billion people’s thoughts that has ever been created. Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts. But we have three technology companies who have this system that frankly they don’t even have control over — with newsfeeds and recommended videos and whatever they put in front of you — which is governing what people do with their time and what they’re looking at.”
He’s referring to the features that allow us to be spoon fed information. Like – here’s an article you might enjoy because you read this one. Or here’s a video that you should watch because of your interest in that particular topic. As an adult, I think it’s my problem as to whether I give into that or not. Maybe I’m having a click-bait kind of day and I just want to get lost in the expanse of information. But, I don’t feel like children or youth have the ability to separate this for themselves. That said, I wonder if it’s the technology that’s to blame or the fact that we have a fear of missing out.
No, that’s not a joke. Why are you looking at your phone while you’re driving? Because you heard that familiar sound, which means you’ve got to check it immediately. Maybe it’s your crush liking your Instagram picture. Or maybe it’s your best friend telling you that she and her boyfriend broke up. Sure, these are important things in your life. But they’re not worth risking your safety over. Those messages will be there once you’re safely stopped. Harris, however, believes that it’s the thousands of engineers designing the software who are the problem, and not society itself.
While I do think there are things that can be done by the engineers to help foster a society where we aren’t always looking at our phones. I also think that we as adults and human beings have to take into consideration how we spend our time. And if we’re not willing or able to do that, then that’s not your problem. Maybe I sound a bit defeatist, but how can we force other people to change? Software changes might help in the long run, but I think the bigger change needs to come from society.
Think about how software has helped us to be physically healthy. My Apple Watch, for example, tells me when I need to stand up because I’ve been sitting for so long. Or when I need to breathe. Does that mean I’m addicted to my phone? No, it just means I have too much going on to be able to recognize when I need a break. That’s on me though. There is no one at Apple making me stand up. They can’t force me to change. Yes, they can put the tools in place to help me, but as an adult, I can choose not to stand, and it’s ultimately not going to be their fault.