The Creators of Some of Technology’s Most Addictive Features Think They’re Harming Us

More and more former Silicon Valley players are speaking out against the psychological tricks the world’s biggest companies use to ensnare the public, warning that they’re degrading mental health and political discourse. That includes some of the very designers and engineers who created the most addictive features of social media and smartphones, among them some of the designers of Facebook’s ubiquitous “like” button.

Writer Paul Lewis profiles these contrarian figures in a vital new feature for The Guardian. They include “Like” co-creator Justin Rosenstein, Rosenstein’s former Facebook coworker Leah Pearlman, and Tristan Harris, a former product designer who became an in-house ethicist at Google before taking his campaign public.

These whistleblowers cite specific tricks used in apps and interfaces to provide users with a rush of dopamine, pulling them back to their phones and other screens hundreds of times a day. Those include the triggering red color of Facebook notifications, autoplay features on YouTube and Netflix, and the pull-to-refresh mechanism of Twitter and other apps.

Some of the insider critiques would seem hyperbolic if they were coming from other sources. Roger McNamee, an investor in both Google and Facebook credited with introducing Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg, now compares those companies to “tobacco companies and drug dealers.”

James Williams, who built important parts of Google’s advertising business, now says the company’s attention-seizing methods are changing people’s brains by privileging “our impulses over our intentions.” He blames those changes for at least some of the shift of global politics towards anger and outrage, rather than debate.

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Even many techies who don’t openly critique their own products implicitly acknowledge they may be harmful. Lewis describes product engagement guru Nir Eyal giving a room full of designers tips on increasing productivity by avoiding the lure of their own products. Some top tech executives have even sent their own children to an elite school that bans screens, according to the New York Times.

Left mostly unspoken in Lewis’ story is that these impacts – just like those of of smoking – are likely to disproportionately fall on less privileged members of society. People with the resources and wherewithal to protect their attention will retain more of the critical thinking skills vital to real-world success, while those caught in the grind of daily survival are more likely to seek solace in the easy distractions of social media. The potential consequences go well beyond politics – other research has recently shown that tech addiction can lead to increased depression and risk of suicide among young people.

Both Williams and Rosenstein call for greater regulation of the techniques they helped pioneer, with Rosenstein characterizing them as “psychologically manipulative advertising.” Absent such regulation, the economics of attention make it unlikely that tech companies will change their ways, or halt their worst impacts. “The dynamics of the attention economy,” Williams tells The Guardian, “are structurally set up to undermine the human will.”

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