I believe we are getting closer to using technology realistically and I’m encouraged by some of the recent voices and awareness raising about excessive screen time and how it’s affecting us socially, psychologically and emotionally.
Tristan Harris is a former Product Philosopher and Design Ethicist for Google where he studied how technology affects people’s attention, wellbeing and behaviour. “Called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” by The Atlantic magazine, Tristan Harris spent three years as a Google Design Ethicist developing a framework for how technology should “ethically” steer the thoughts and actions of billions of people from screens.” (from “How do you ethically steer the thoughts and actions of two billion people’s minds every day?”) Harris now has his own foundation advocating for the ethical deployment of technology, HumaneTech.
Harris is concerned about how technology is shaping our behaviours and neural responses resulting in addiction to apps. He’s an expert on how technology exploits blind spots, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, to covertly influence what people do.
According to Harris, neuroscience and behavioural psychology have contributed to shaping online behaviours. Variable rewards, for example, maximize ‘addictiveness’ by linking a user’s action, such as posting, liking and playing, with a reward such as a prize, peer approval or affirmation or nothing at all.
It’s a notable feature of why slot machines are so notoriously addictive. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable. Apps, websites and games have intermittent variable rewards throughout their products because it keeps users engaged and revenue coming in.
Harris says, “Here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:
- When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
- When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
- When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
- When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
- When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.”
Harris is a welcome voice in the dialogue—especially when it come to students. I think it’s important to give youth a chance to have this information presented with the opportunity to be informed of these challenges they face daily—even as we struggle, as adults, to resolve the issue of excessive screen time.
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