I have been following the writing and talks of Tristan Harris for some time. An Ex-Design Ethicist, he founded an initiative called Time Well Spent. The main premise of the initiative is that today all tech and tech media companies as Facebook, YouTube, SnapChat, NetFlix among others are in a race for our attention. They want all of our attention because they can sell this time to advertisers who in turn get consumers to pay attention to their products and services. Hence, they are designing their apps in a way that manipulate our minds, persuade us to spend more and more time with them and taking away our own agency to act freely. He talks of the pressing need for tech companies to design more ethically in a way that doesn’t exploit our attention to benefit advertisers, but enable us to spend our time well on things which actually matter to us.
I find this true in my own personal experience and this intrusion by tech companies seems to grow everyday. Yes, I enjoy using Facebook to connect with my loved ones, but I feel alarmed when it interrupts personal conversations to make a suggestion (e.g. chatting on the messenger, asking a friend, let’s meet and tech says ‘make a plan’, if wish X a birthday was not enough, ‘make a video for birthday’) . I am happy to make a plan or even make a video for a friend’s birthday but I like to retain that decision, what Facebook thinks of as a nudge, honestly feels like a hard push to me as a user.
Technology is not neutral, how tech companies interfere with parental imperatives
And going beyond myself, it alarms me when I see the effects of this greed for attention of our children. NetFlix is smart enough to allow a tailored profile for wife, husband, kid and make accurate content suggestions basis past preference of the three. However, it will not have any ethical regards to ‘not’ autoplay the videos, atleast for the kids. You might argue that the onus of responsible parenting is on the parents and not on the toy marketer, balloon seller or NetFlix for that matter. As a parent, I see nothing wrong with my child enjoying toys, balloons or Peppa Pig on NetFlix. But I will resist and fight, when any of them try to lure or manipulate my child and instead of enabling my parental imperatives (say teaching self-control) to actually creating hurdles by offering a limitless stream. If the content never ‘ends’ if you can’t shut it in 13 seconds, then good luck parents trying to convince your kid that the episode actually ‘ended’ and this is a new one!As the Netflix CEO says, “our biggest competitors are Facebook, YouTube and sleep.” This has implications for us adults but far worse for our kids.
Teenagers in 1980s = phones. Teenagers in 2017 = SnapChat. Strength of personal relationship ≠
Tristan makes a very interesting point in his TED talk about SnapChat, one of the most popular apps among teenagers in US (urban India too). He gives the example of SnapStreaks feature on SnapChat which shows the number of days in a row that two people have communicated with each other. So if two kids have 150 days of being connected in a row they won’t want to let that chain break, they will go to any extent to make that chain continue – including giving their passwords to other friends if they were away on vacation. He says that while we may be tempted to believe that teenagers use SnapChat for gossip the way their parents may have used phones but that’s not the case. According to him, “it’s not even like they’re having real conversations”, they are at some level only completing mindless tasks that the technology is asking of them, by manipulating their psychology.
On a different note, Time Well Spent has been doing a research where they asked bout 2,00,000 users to rate their experience of using apps (refer snapshots below) –
Source: Time Well Spent
Atleast by this research, we as well as our kids seem to enjoy the apps when we use in moderation but their excessive use seems to actually make us unhappy.
My view on use of media and tech for adults and kids is that we can’t reduce it to a black/white debate. Media and technology are great tools but we have a long way to go in the way they are being used today. The responsibility and the ‘choice’ does lie with the user. But there is equal onus on the platforms for more accountability on ethics and whose interest gets served. If these apps and technologies exist because of us, we can’t be reduced to Pavlovian hamsters.