Digital Detox: Big Tech’s Phony Crisis of Conscience

Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab. 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. They reinforce neoliberal ideals, privileging the on-the-move individual whose time needs to be well spent — a neatly consumerist metaphor. 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. Unsurprisingly, given their privileged status, technocrats like Harris, Williams, Palihapitiya, and Parker continue to believe in the redemptive power of digital technology. But we should perhaps be skeptical of accepting an antidote from those who offered us the poison in the first place. Who would the digital labor unions represent? 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. He is working on a book about Big Tech and neoliberalism. 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. They fail to attack the attention economy at its roots or challenge the basic building blocks of late capitalism: market fundamentalism, deregulation, and privatization. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he said. After perceiving that he too was complicit in addicting most of the world, Harris attended “digital detox” camps for ex-Valley employees. 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. 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. J. Yet the technocrats never mention capitalism. Moreover, Williams’s notion that Valley companies can invent ethical technologies via the same outsourcing process they use to make current ones is shortsighted. Harris and Williams, in particular, warn us of digital dangers only after laboring on behalf of the largest tech companies in the world. AUGUST 9, 2018

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. In November 2017, venture capitalist and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya gave a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. 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. ¤
Grafton Tanner’s writing has appeared in The Hong Kong Review of Books, Mesmer, and We Are The Mutants. 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. TWS-certified software would be the “premium” level, available for a set cost, a healthier option for the mind and society. 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. 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. 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. 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. Surely they also should have a right to rally for more ethical standards in the industry. What Williams chose to focus on were the sociopolitical consequences of social media — mainly in response to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. 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. They rarely talk about the surveillance state or the problems with data privacy. Before joining Google, Harris was a graduate student at Stanford, where he studied the art of psychological manipulation in B. Nothing that Williams said was particularly novel or earth-shattering. Such a union will ensure that all voices are heard and will keep corporations, like the one Williams worked for, in check. Williams’s claims are being echoed by his fellow Silicon Valley technocrats. 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. In a time when free-market capitalism is the only game in town, massively centralized tech companies have virtually unfettered reign. What he and Williams both see as decentralization and democratization is actually just top-down capitalism by another name. Ultimately, he declared that an addictive technology facilitated the proliferation of “fake news” that divided our country.