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Silicon Valley Veterans Launch Fight Against Manipulative, Addictive Tech
By Shirley Siluk
Posted: February 5, 2018 9:16am PST

Over the past couple of years, particularly in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, a steady stream of reports have illustrated how online and mobile technologies are manipulated by bots and human actors with malicious political motives or social agendas.

Veterans of tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Mozilla, and others, are kicking off a campaign to redesign social media and other technology platforms to reduce their damaging effects on democracy, society, mental health, and children's well-being.

While acknowledging the benefits of social media and social networks, the founders of the Center for Humane Technology warn these platforms are in a "zero-sum race for our finite attention" and won't change on their own because the current model is too profitable for them.

Launched over the weekend, the Center for Humane Technology plans to begin by targeting the risks of digital addiction, especially for children. The organization is partnering with Common Sense, a child- and parent-focused nonprofit, on a "Truth about Tech" campaign pushing for changes in how technologies engage with kids.

Like Magicians 'Looking for Blind Spots'

Founding members of the Center for Humane Technology include executive director Tristan Harris, formerly the design ethicist at Google; Roger McNamee, an early advisor to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg; chief strategy officer Aza Raskin, who previously worked as the head of user experience at Mozilla; and chief operating officer Randima Fernando, who was developer-tools product manager at Nvidia and executive director of the nonprofit Mindful Schools.

Since leaving Google in 2016, Harris has been leading an initiative to "reform the attention economy," giving presentations, writing essays, and advocating for changes in how technology is used. In a May 2016 commentary, he described how his views on tech-driven manipulation were formed in part by his past experience as a magician.

"Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people's perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it," Harris wrote. "Once you know how to push people's buttons, you can play them like a piano."

He added the same principles are at work when designers create websites and other applications to interact with human users.

"We need our smartphones, notification screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first," Harris said. "People's time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights."

Misinformation and 'Computational Propaganda'

Over the past couple years, particularly in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a steady stream of reports has illustrated how online and mobile technologies are manipulated by bots and human actors with malicious political motives or social agendas.

For example, in late October, senior executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., to testify about suspicious online activities that might have pushed Russia-sponsored misinformation to an estimated 126 million Americans ahead of the election.

And yesterday, Politico published an in-depth report detailing how "computational propaganda" has been used to amplify manipulative political messages to alter the public's perception of issues in the news.

"The most powerful tech companies in the world are making deliberate decisions that do great harm," Harris said today in a joint news announcement with Common Sense. "They've 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."

Working together, the Center for Humane Technology and Common Sense have organized a "Truth about Tech" conference to take place Wednesday in Washington, D.C. During the event, they plan to unveil a roadmap outlining the ways in which technologies are being used to "addict and distract" children. Common Sense is also researching digital addiction among young people, and will work with the center and other groups on standards and regulations aimed at stemming the problem.

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