“We were on the inside. We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works.” These are the words of Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist dubbed “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.” He is pleading for society to reckon with the havoc that Silicon Valley has wreaked on the most mundane facets of our daily lives.
Silicon Valley’s name, and those of its tech mogul children, have been gracing U.S. headlines for months now. Be it Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, revelations of Russian disinformation campaigns on U.S. social media platforms, or fears of malevolent consequences of automation, the valley now tends to be cast in a scrutinous light. Where less than a decade ago Twitter was heralded as a democratic tool for those suffering under dictators and Facebook was celebrated for uniting the world, consumer concerns of the technology industry now abound. The days of revering the altruism and philanthropy of Silicon Valley, and the innovation it inspires, are over.
The sources of these concerns go beyond outcries of those regulating and consuming these technologies. Moreover, these criticisms are not limited to the realm of precise episodes, like Russian hacking or Cambridge Analytica. Industry veterans have begun to speak out about the negative externalities Silicon Valley products have on society. We, as consumers and creators, must recognize the valley’s concrete failures as well as the unforeseen and adverse effects its work has precipitated. The breadth and depth of industry whistleblowers’ expertise, experiences, and initiatives point to the severity of the problem. When former employees of today’s biggest tech companies form an alliance against the products they helped build, their word should be weighed heavily. While these individuals have not lost all hope, they contend that due to distorting business models, technology has veered away from its original intent to empower, and not simply monetize, humans.
The Center for Humane Technology seeks to reverse “the digital attention crisis and (more importantly) realign technology with humanity’s best interests.” The team includes former tech insiders and CEOs like Tristan Harris and Sandy Parakilas, to name a few. The organization maintains that “technology that tears apart our common reality and truth, constantly shreds our attention, or causes us to feel isolated” makes it impossible to solve the world’s “pressing problems.” Its founders aims to introduce a Ledger of Harms, a website to guide engineers concerned about the products they are asked to build. Ultimately, they aim to bring to light the fact that tech companies control billions of minds every day. If those who once drank the valley’s kool-aid are informing us of an undetectable crisis, our ears better perk up.
In a similar vein, the Truth About Tech campaign, which is teaming up with Common Sense and the aforementioned Center for Humane Technology, seeks to respond to “escalating concerns about digital addiction among our youth.” The campaign emphasizes the startling fact that 87% of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones. Modeled after anti-smoking crusades, the campaign focuses on children’s vulnerabilities, hoping to raise awareness and provide a roadmap of solutions to the digital addiction crisis. The Truth About Tech is “dedicated to fighting for safer, healthier” technology and to bringing Silicon Valley back to its roots of empowering and enabling, rather than hijacking, users.
In October of 2017, John Naughton, a professor at the University of Cambridge, asserted that we “need a 21st-century Martin Luther to challenge the church of tech.” A former internet utopian, Naughton believes consumers have surrendered themselves to monetization by tech behemoths. He contends that our blind obedience to “the Church of Technopoly” is no different than Catholics ceding control to their authoritarian church 500 years ago. Having now launched his own 95 Theses about Technology, Naughton presents propositions about “the tech world and the ecosystem it has spawned.” He argues, amongst other things, that the technical is political, that Facebook is in fact not a community, and that surveillance capitalism undermines democracy. Naughton believes consumers of modern technology are “sleepwalking into a nightmare.” With his literature, he hopes to wake them up.
The Center for Humane Technology, the Truth About Tech campaign, and Naughton’s 95 Theses are but three examples of thinkers and whistleblowers instigating a dialogue about technology companies’ control over its users’ lives. Harris contends that “all of us are jacked into this system... Our choices are not as free as we think they are.” A 2016 study revealed that on average people tapped, swiped or clicked their phones 2,617 times each day. Furthermore, “the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity.” Indeed, technologies can affect the same neurological pathways as gambling and drugs do; they are all forms of reward-based behavior that activate dopamine pathways. Surprisingly, many Facebook and Google employees are disconnecting themselves for fear of a “smartphone dystopia.” For an industry that claims to cultivate autonomy by granting customers easy access to communication, information, and retail, it is ironic that these products consume and control so much of our consciousness.
Europe has questioned the ethical, privacy, and competition consequences of Google and Facebook’s eminence for years. In light of the Cambridge Analytica and Russian hacking incidents, the U.S. government now exhibits a crisis of faith in Silicon Valley. Even veterans of tech behemoths condemn the industry and its treatment of users.
It is time for Stanford students to follow suit. The adverse effects of technology are not limited to data breaches and foreign intervention in elections. They also disturbingly include the hacking of users’ consciousness, dissemination of disinformation, and the disillusionment of truth and reality.
CS majors may like to take the moral high ground on their Wall Street bound peers as they hope to pursue social good instead of thick paychecks, but such self-righteousness is naive. Just as Wall Street has malevolent actors, so too can Silicon Valley be a force of pervasive destruction to erode civil society. You heard it from these engineers themselves. If we are to reorient technological innovation to help humans instead of harming them, future engineers, that is, current students, must come to terms with the fact that the industry has gone astray.