Science & Tech

Former Google and Facebook Engineers Form Center for Humane Technology

The success of Google and Facebook was built on demanding the attention and perhaps even the souls of those who become addicted to the platforms. A coalition of former employees from both has formed a new group to drive the development of healthier products.

Both Google and Facebook have succeeded in the marketplace at the unfortunate cost of online addiction and manipulation by the two companies involved.

Even if the intent may have been benign when both started, both companies’ offerings have evolved well beyond Google’s own original mantra of “do no evil” to guide their work. As Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, said about the development of social media that he was involved with, “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because of the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or two billion people and it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other.” He also sadly added, “God knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” And during a recent public talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook who worked there from 2005 to 2011, said, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”At Apple, several major investors weighed in late last year to ask the tech giant to do something to make its iPhones less addictive. They, too, recognized that the problem is with the way the devices are designed to hook you in, without regard to the damage they may be causing.

A paper entitled “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel,” written by Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis and published in Harvard Business Review in April 2017, laid part of the problem with the platform out in significant detail. With the average Facebook user reportedly spending about an hour a day on the platform, the potential impact of the interactions there on people can be significant. The authors’ conclusions, based on an extensive research effort, include that “Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being” and that “most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year.” That’s just for adults, but Facebook has designs on children even below its original suggested minimum user age of 13.

In December 2017, Facebook introduced Messenger Kids, a messaging app designed just for children and quite deliberately also to bring youth into Facebook’s network at younger ages. Children as young as six can use it if they can do some simple texts and send emojis and selfies. The problem is that at that age a child is only just beginning to understand writing, cannot always separate reality from something made up and has no understanding of the importance of privacy.

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group that has fought in the past to eliminate fast food ads from the Pokémon Go app and to remove McDonald’s advertising on report card envelopes in Florida, strongly urged Facebook to recall the Messenger Kids app. As its letter said, “Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts. A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development.”

Another concern raised by many involves how easily the Russians, charged by FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller, were able to use Facebook to manipulate information for its users. Of equal concern is how the U.S. government uses Facebook to push its own agenda. Beyond that, of course, is how Facebook and Google both have self-referential algorithms that tend to return content similar to what one has read before. Without alternative opinions offered, that content can reinforce past opinions and foster delusion rather than stimulate critical thinking. Even worse, it can – and clearly has – dig even deeper into the liberal-conservative divide that is ripping the United States apart.

All of this is behind why several former employees of both Facebook and Google have agreed to form the Center for Humane Technology (humanetech.com). Four of the founders of the center are from Facebook, two are from Google and one is a technologist. The new organization will be dedicated to understanding and finding ways to do something about the ill effects of what the tech companies have created.

As Tristan Harris, a former ethicist at Google who is leading the center, said in an interview with The New York Times, “The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies – Google and Facebook – and where are we pointing them? We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.”As a measure of the center’s seriousness in its mission, among the various acts it intends to carry out shortly are the following:

  • Launch an advertising campaign in 55,000 public schools across the United States with the goal of educating parents and students about the impacts of social media addiction
  • Lobby for the passage of a bill being introduced in Congress by Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachu­setts) to fund in-depth research on the impact of technology on children’s health
  • Lobby for the passage of a state bill in California aimed at controlling what digital bots are allowed to do within social media platforms

The center is also creating a website to be called “The Ledger of Harms” that will feature research about the harmful effects of technology and infor­mation to guide engineers to create healthier plat­forms and products.

In a statement Harris released about the center on February 5, he said that companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have “created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids.” He went on to remind us that “technologists, engineers and designers have the power and responsibility to hold themselves accountable and build products that create a better world. Plenty of smart engineers and designers in the industry want to create apps that provide us with the information we need to improve our lives as quickly as possible, instead of just sucking us in for as long as possible.”

Parents would be wise to take heed and keep their kids away from potentially harmful social media for as long as possible.