Digital Detox: Big Tech’s Phony Crisis of Conscience




IN MAY 2017, ex-Google employee and design ethicist James Williams outlined his vision for a world in which technology companies are held responsible for what they do to and for society. At his talk entitled “Why (and How) to End the Attention Economy,” delivered at The Next Web (TNW) Conference, Williams addressed the cultural effects of ubiquitous digital technology and social media. He affirmed that, after nearly 10 years, the results are in: social media is highly addictive, and with so many billions logging in to get their next hit, the world could be on the verge of disaster.

Nothing that Williams said was particularly novel or earth-shattering. Talk of the mental health effects of social media had been circulating in lay discourse, and research had been published on the link between Facebook and general well-being. What Williams chose to focus on were the sociopolitical consequences of social media — mainly in response to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. Ultimately, he declared that an addictive technology facilitated the proliferation of “fake news” that divided our country.

Williams’s claims are being echoed by his fellow Silicon Valley technocrats. In November 2017, venture capitalist and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya gave a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He had been invited to discuss how business can be conducted more ethically and for the common good; however, like Williams, he turned his attention to the problems caused by social media. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he said. The result is “no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” Asked how he felt about what social media has wrought, he responded, “I feel tremendous guilt.”

Facebook co-founder Sean Parker repeated many of these claims at an Axios event held that same month. Calling the dopaminergic reliance on social media a “social-validation feedback loop,” Parker argued that he and other tech architects had been “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” — i.e., the need for social validation. Such an addictive design feature is, according to Parker, “exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with.”

Finally, in a bombshell feature article by Bianca Bosker in the 2016 “Tech Issue” of The Atlantic, former Silicon Valley product philosopher Tristan Harris delivered a blistering critique of social media’s negative influence. Before joining Google, Harris was a graduate student at Stanford, where he studied the art of psychological manipulation in B. J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab. After perceiving that he too was complicit in addicting most of the world, Harris attended “digital detox” camps for ex-Valley employees. With James Williams, he co-founded Time Well Spent, an advocacy group that supports moral incentives for tech companies to refrain from addicting us all. But he concedes that the effort may prove futile since, as he quips, tech development is a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.”

For his part, Williams has called for labor unions to represent workers of the attention economy — i.e., those of us who “work” as social media users, crafting finely groomed profiles and posting content. Such a union will ensure that all voices are heard and will keep corporations, like the one Williams worked for, in check. Ultimately, unions will afford the public the freedom to “give attention to things that matter.”

Along the same lines, Harris has propounded a Time Well Spent certification that would be the tech equivalent of an organic label on produce. TWS-certified software would be the “premium” level, available for a set cost, a healthier option for the mind and society. While Harris admits this tier-based plan would create a new inequality, he seems unaware that his vision of a healthier world is still one in which technology continues to control users’ attention. What he and Williams both see as decentralization and democratization is actually just top-down capitalism by another name.

Moreover, Williams’s notion that Valley companies can invent ethical technologies via the same outsourcing process they use to make current ones is shortsighted. Who would the digital labor unions represent? Harris and Williams do not include the factory workers who assemble iPhones at Foxconn Technology in China or the children in the Congo mining the minerals that power Apple batteries. Surely they also should have a right to rally for more ethical standards in the industry.

Unsurprisingly, given their privileged status, technocrats like Harris, Williams, Palihapitiya, and Parker continue to believe in the redemptive power of digital technology. They assume that we all want to live mediated lives through technology and that the perils of the medium can be ameliorated by simple common-sense precautions. But we should perhaps be skeptical of accepting an antidote from those who offered us the poison in the first place. Harris and Williams, in particular, warn us of digital dangers only after laboring on behalf of the largest tech companies in the world.

It is indeed odd that the most outspoken voices proclaiming social media’s debilitating effects are the very men who learned how to hook users with just one click. According to Bianca Bosker, this technical elite is now realizing the “unwelcome side effects” of their creations, an “epiphany [that] has come with […] the peace of mind of having several million in the bank.” They seek to deflect public anger away from themselves, a brilliant cohort charged (in Williams’s words) with the task of “carrying the flame of innovation and creativity.” They also ignore the plight of people who cannot just unplug and leave work behind for several weeks while they attend detox camps to clear the mind. Their solutions — designing ethical technologies and creating labor unions for the digital age — completely ignore the fact that technology has never succeeded in achieving utopia and probably never will.

In a time when free-market capitalism is the only game in town, massively centralized tech companies have virtually unfettered reign. Yet the technocrats never mention capitalism. They rarely talk about the surveillance state or the problems with data privacy. They fail to attack the attention economy at its roots or challenge the basic building blocks of late capitalism: market fundamentalism, deregulation, and privatization. They reinforce neoliberal ideals, privileging the on-the-move individual whose time needs to be well spent — a neatly consumerist metaphor. Competition is the name of the game, and when our technology has us by the brain stem, according to Harris, “[w]e have to change what it means to win.”

Solving tech problems with tech solutions only continues to position Big Tech as the savior of us all. Unfortunately, what the public learns from this worn-out myth is that, even when technology is used for the common good, the larger structures of power must remain in place, unquestioned. Global capitalism, the system within which these technologies proliferate, is bolstered in no small part by the panaceas offered by technocrats like Harris and Williams.

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Grafton Tanner’s writing has appeared in The Hong Kong Review of BooksMesmer, and We Are The Mutants. He is working on a book about Big Tech and neoliberalism.


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