Why Silicon Valley is turning against the machines

Long-read

Why Silicon Valley is turning against the machines

Tech giants are now panicking about their own inventions.

Norman Lewis
Writer

A spectre is haunting Silicon Valley – the spectre of regulation and limits on social-media and smartphone technologies. This is a remarkable development. Not only is the demand for action on ‘tech addiction’ coming from within that citadel of free enterprise and entrepreneurship itself, but it is also being driven by some of Silicon Valley’s brightest and most creative talents – insiders, that is, who have been intimately involved in the development of those very technologies now regarded as socially corrosive.

So it was, in April, that Tristan Harris entered the fray. A former product designer and ethicist at Google, he launched a roadshow to draw attention to the harmful effect social media and smartphones are having on society. Together with Aza Raskin, his co-founder of the not-for-profit Center for Humane Technology, Harris wants Silicon Valley to face up to the ‘inconvenient truth’ that, while it has been ‘upgrading machines’, it has been ‘downgrading humanity’.

Harris has emerged as the conscience of Silicon Valley. Over the past two years, he has been on a mission to get social-media tech giants to address the dark side of social media and smartphones. According to Harris and friends, social media and smartphones have not just hacked the attention of users – they are also downgrading humanity by driving addictive behaviours. The obsession with likes and followers is having a negative effect on young people’s self-esteem, he argues. Certain features – like autoplay on YouTube and Netflix, which feeds videos continuously unless users turn it off – are apparently driving this addiction. Also, like the pink-haired data-science geek and whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who was at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Harris believes that this technology is at the root of political polarisation and fake news. His concern is that social-media giants are ‘designing a psychological infrastructure that runs people’s lives’.

‘This is really serious. We are not fooling around’, Harris says. ‘Technology is holding the pen of history right now. Every major election, and the culture of a new generation, is being written by who? Are they waking up and saying to themselves: I want to create a culture where we take pictures of ourselves all day?’

These are important questions. But the answer as to what has been driving these developments is not as simple as Harris is suggesting. He asks ‘who’ is driving this culture, but he ought to know. After all, the people who have been getting up every day to ‘create a culture where we take pictures of ourselves all day’ are none other than Harris and some of his fellow ‘techlashers’.

His colleague Aza Raskin, for example, is credited with inventing the ‘infinite scroll’, a feature that serves up endless social-media feeds, one of the first tech features designed ‘not to help you but to keep you’ on the screen. Likewise, much of social media, Raskin admits, is designed to capitalise on teenagers’ insecurities, playing on the painful fear of missing out. That keeps young people constantly distracted and checking their smartphones.

But the question Harris does not ask is what, rather than who, was driving this need to create addictive user experiences in the first place? The answer is uncomfortable for Silicon Valley, because the driver is an advertising business model in which clicks and screen time translate into billions of dollars of revenues and profits.

Techlashers’ contrition for allegedly tricking an entire culture into addictive dependency is nothing more than an ego-driven, self-obsessed pat on the back

This sidestepping of the billion-dollar elephant in the room is no oversight. Pointing it out is to pose uncomfortable questions about the true provenance of the growth of social media in society. What it reveals is that technology neither is nor was the primary agent of change here. Silicon Valley was only able to build on, and then drive, an existing need in society, not create it where none existed. ‘Keeping you, not helping you’ was thus a result, an incremental change to existing behaviour, not the cause of social-media behaviour.

There is a disingenuous narcissism at the root of what amounts to technological determinism. The guilt of leading ‘techlashers’ is suspicious. Their contrition for allegedly successfully tricking an entire society into addictive dependency is nothing more than an ego-driven, self-obsessed pat on the back. ‘I know it’s terrible, and I apologise, your honour, but I am guilty of brilliance. Naive, perhaps, but genius, nevertheless.’ It’s almost as convincing as saying in a job interview, when asked to describe your flaws, that ‘my biggest weakness is that I work too hard’.

Their ‘guilt’ does not even go as far as to make them question the business models that drove their behaviour. Instead, we are now led to believe that their genius has tricked not just kids, but adults, too; that their technology is so powerful that it, rather than broader socioeconomic and political developments, now determines people’s behaviour and culture. The depth of this self-delusion is as remarkable as it is self-serving.

One of the greatest things about Silicon Valley was that generations of very smart and driven young technologists and entrepreneurs were encouraged to believe that they could change the world through technological innovation. But the real secret of its success was its toleration of failure. In technological innovation, failure is more important than success because it forces change. Failure is like having an adult in the room who tells the children that they are not the centre of the universe, and that perhaps they should try a little harder. It raises problem-solving to higher levels. The tragedy of the ‘techlash’ is that it is the result of success that was more accidental than planned. It has led to overinflated egos; to people believing they are the true masters of the universe, capable of shaping and determining the future of society.

The truth about social media is that it was not, and still is not, a technology-led phenomenon. It was driven by social and cultural factors that had little to do with communication technologies. Principal among these non-technological factors was the emergence of risk culture during the late 20th century, and, in particular, the negative impact this had on the experience of childhood. Unlike previous generations, young people were forced to grow up constantly under the gaze of their parents and other adults. Digital technologies were adopted by young people to solve this social problem. The need to communicate and entertain themselves, and experiment with their identities through peer-driven networks hidden from adults, is the real dynamic underpinning the technological development of social media. Silicon Valley did not create the demand for these new technologies; its innovators simply rode the socio-cultural wave. Yes, the design of the service certainly reinforced the narcissistic behaviours of children and adolescents, but the technology was pushing at an open door, piggybacking on this shift in behaviour, not creating it in the first place.

If anyone is guilty of ‘downgrading humanity’, it is the erstwhile critics of Silicon Valley, who see social-media users as little more than vulnerable victims

The second important factor behind the extraordinary growth of social media, has been the adoption of adolescent narcissistic behaviour by adults, who have become even greater users of social media than their children. The infantilisation of adulthood has, therefore, been critical to the growth of social media. While the increase in user numbers has certainly helped fuel the business model, generating more clicks and time spent online, its real impact has been the increased importance of a digitally mediated social existence for young people. Robbed of adult oversight, and experiencing a loss of meaning more broadly in their daily lives, young people’s dependence on these technologies has intensified. Their ‘addiction’ is not the result of ingenious psychological manipulation by social-media giants – it is the product of a social existence in which meaning is now increasingly mediated through these technologies. The ‘addiction’ is a symptom of their social behaviour, not its cause.

All this highlights the critical importance of establishing causality. The technological determinism at the heart of the ‘techlash’ inverts reality, confusing symptoms with causes. Harris is fundamentally wrong when he insists that ‘technology is holding the pen of history’. This would mean that technology and technologists, not human beings, are the history makers; that technology is the active subject, with autonomy and a will of its own, while people have become technology’s object; and that we are no longer capable of controlling the technologies we have created. All of which is hogwash. Social media have been given an autonomy they do not possess, while the true drivers of the adoption and development of social media, rooted as they are in broader cultural developments, are effaced from history.

Harris is right to point to how Silicon Valley has ‘upgraded machines’. But if anyone is guilty of ‘downgrading humanity’, it is the erstwhile critics of Silicon Valley themselves, who see the users of social media (adults and children) as vulnerable victims, easily manipulatable objects, with Pavlovian tendencies. In fact, this is worse than ‘downgrading’. Downgrading implies movement from one state to another, which also posits the possibility of movement back to the original state. But Harris et al assume our diminished humanity to be the only state – a permanent state of vulnerable addiction. That is their starting point: our psychological weakness. Accordingly, they focus innovation on therapeutic interventions, rather than building on the enormous potential of what connecting billions of people in real time might produce in the future.

Already we see the negative impact Harris and his cohorts are having on some of the big-tech companies. Facebook, Apple and Google have already made changes to help users curb obsessive tech-use. Google, for instance, added a new dashboard to its Android mobile operating system to allow for setting screen-time limits. Apple has done something similar. If you want a glimpse of what the ‘techlash’ future looks like, look no further than last year’s annual Apple conference. This was littered with positive social messages and #woke bombs, but little technological innovation. We now have credit cards that will educate us about debt management; an Apple-provided TV service that is nauseatingly socially aware; and a tech giant promising to protect our privacy from ourselves.

The ‘techlash’ is an extremely worrying development. It represents an attempt to limit rather than liberate technological innovation. This is diminishing technological possibilities because it assumes that all human beings are now children – vulnerable, easily influenced and incapable of exercising free will. In innovation, the key is always asking the right question. Answering the wrong question does not create solutions, only more problems. The ‘techlash’ is not only identifying the wrong problem, it is part of the problem. Instead of focusing on therapy and countering vulnerability, Silicon Valley needs to rediscover its adult self, and the grown-up ambition of solving real, world-shaping problems. This, and not a demand for more regulation and limits, is the only thing that will upgrade humanity and our machines.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

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