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Confronting big tech's role in digital addiction and digital wellness

Heard at Wisdom 2.0: Former Google employee Tristan Harris believes big tech needs to confront its role in promoting digital addiction and get serious about digital wellness.

Tristan Harris, director and a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, had a sobering message for attendees at the recent Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Digital addiction is real, and the technology companies that feed the compulsion have little financial incentive -- and therefore little interest -- in changing what they do.

Harris has firsthand experience with the matter. In 2013, while employed by Google, he circulated a presentation, "A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users' Attention," which raised the issue of digital addiction and the responsibility that companies like Google, Apple and Facebook should take in ameliorating it.

"I tried for two years to change something and did not get very far," said Harris, also a co-founder of the Time Well Spent movement.

Harris, who left Google in 2016, said he believes that enterprises face a tremendous challenge in addressing the growing criticism that mobile apps and other online experiences are leading to alarming rises in anxiety and depression. Counteracting these bad side effects of tech use will not be easy.

The tech industry, which includes some of the largest companies in the world, is not a neutral player in the debate about digital addiction; their stock prices are chained to how much attention their apps can attract.

"This creates a race to the bottom of the brainstem," Harris said, adding that the "system is designed to figure out the deeper and deeper puppet strings to pull" that trigger digital addiction.

Digital bona fides

Harris has a vested interested in digital design. He started off as an experience designer and honed his craft at Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab with behavior scientist BJ Fogg, exploring how design principles could improve people lives. In 2011, he and two other Stanford grads formed Apture, a startup that allowed publishers to embed media into webpages with hyperlinks.

Tristan Harris, director and a co-founder, the Center for Humane TechnologyTristan Harris

After the company was acquired by Google, Harris went on to find ways to improve engagement with the search giant's applications, including Gmail. "Email is an attention shredder. It is a very stressful product, but no one talks about it," he said, including the Google design team at the time.

He spent a couple of months documenting common industrial practices that he believes hijack our attention and thinking about ways to create more "humane technology."

They are not bad people, it's just they are caught.
Tristan Harrisdirector and co-founder, Center for Humane Technology

He said his reports were widely read at Google, all the way up to the C-suite, and he was even promoted to design ethicist. But then he said he found himself essentially alone in his cubicle getting no traction: There was always some tension between finding ways of making it easier for people to manage their online interactions, and fears that Facebook would swoop in and capture these free eyeballs. "They are not bad people, it's just they are caught," Harris said.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

After Harris left Google, a 60 Minutes story on his work in April 2017 called "Brain Hacking" brought renewed attention to the concerns he raised. Some of the other issues raised by the Center for Humane Technology also gained traction after the Russian election hacking campaign and Cambridge Analytica scandal.

A complex problem

Indeed, big tech is beginning to address issues such as digital addiction and respecting the time of users, Harris said. Google has launched a Digital Wellbeing feature and Apple has launched Screen Time as part of their digital wellness initiatives, and even Facebook has at least brought attention to Harris' notion of "time well spent." Harris called these baby steps in a very long journey.

Facebook has gone on to fund research that found that one-to-one interactions mediated through the platform actually increase well-being and reduce anxiety. The business challenge is that today Facebook makes most of its revenues from ads on the main platform rather than from these kinds of communications.

Paul Hawken, environmentalist, activist Paul Hawken

Harris suggested that some of the deeper institutional issues surrounding digital addiction are similar to some of the same challenges raised around climate change. In another session at the conference, environmental business guru Paul Hawken discussed how one of the biggest challenges in responding to climate change lies in confronting the negative impact of things that also bring us value. (Heck, even the protesters have to drive to a climate protest, he noted.)

He suggested we frame these kinds of complex problems as a kind of addiction in which we collectively pursue behaviors that bring diminishing returns or cause harm -- and then work together to manage the addiction.

"The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection," Hawken said.

Nina Hersher, executive director, Digital Wellness CollectiveNina Hersher

After Harris' session an impromptu workshop spontaneously formed to discuss what kinds of things we could do to make technology more humane. About a hundred people came down to brainstorm ideas. David Klein, founder of America Offline, an organization that provides kids with real life experiences that do not involve technology, discussed his work on reconnecting through offline experiences. Nina Hersher, executive director of the Digital Wellness Collective, discussed how her group is connecting educators, mental health practitioners and software developers to be champions of tech for good.

"The evolution of technology is not something that just happened to us, it's something incredible that we created to support us," Hersher said. Embracing this idea makes it easier to see digital wellness through an "empowerment-oriented lens." It is up to us to redefine how we interact with technology so it fuels versus fatigues us, she said.

Editor's note: For more of Lawton's coverage of Wisdom 2.0, see his story on "Google Empathy Lab uses 'design feeling' in search of more human UI."

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