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The war against Silicon Valley’s evil design

With people like Tristan Harris, a former Google product philosopher, advocating for technology to be more ethical, the question is whether the choice lies with designers or users?

A screenshot of Tristan Harris at his TED talk.
A screenshot of Tristan Harris at his TED talk.

We are addicted to anticipation. We check the phone many times every day to see if anything good has happened. According to a study, an average person checks his phone over 150 times a day. Some people unlock their phones over 900 times a day. And, we go to Facebook to be famous “to 15 people", in the analysis of former Facebook employee Antonio Garcia Martinez, and to tolerate the good fortunes of others. And, there is WhatsApp too, where extroverts have a bit more to say about themselves.

We waste time. It is a character flaw, but when millions have the same flaw, it is also called human nature. The tech industry exploits our nature and steals our time.

The smartphone is designed consciously to drain away time. Most of the apps in it, especially social media and email, are designed to trap people for hours every day. And a movement is gathering force to liberate people from the phone, and to force Silicon Valley to adopt more ethical designs.

At the head of the movement is Tristan Harris, former product philosopher and “design ethicist" of Google, who advised the firm on how not to exploit human flaws. He frames the most transformative triumph of commercial design, the smartphone, as a casino “slot machine" because it enslaves people through hope. Gmail, Facebook, Tinder and other apps convert people into zombies who ask, in his opinion, “What am I going to get, what am I going to get next?"

In his TED talk, which was inevitable for a slim, ethical and successful American programmer, he said that every time we send a mail, even a work mail, we interrupt someone who would take “23 minutes" to get back to the interrupted task. In his talk, which was titled “How Better Tech Could Protect Us From Distraction", he said that because modern distraction is a design problem, the solution would be in design. The protection against email intrusion, for instance, is in designing a more ethical mailing system, he said, where “Nancy" is allowed to switch on a “focus mode" that would prevent emails from reaching her inbox. The system can also be designed, he said, to let very important emails reach her. Also, Apple can be persuaded to design a phone that would warn a user that they have unlocked the phone over a dozen times in the past hour.

Harris, who is earnest, clever, pious and self-righteous, wants all designers in the tech industry to take a Hippocratic-like oath, swearing to put ethics above business interests. He is among those who think the opposite of greed is a monk in maroon robes. Not surprising then that he once organized a meeting of monks and programmers. One of the monks joked that instead of the “spellcheck" feature, programmers must code a “compassion check". Are such inanities in the real world better than wasting time on Facebook?

In a short period of time, Harris has developed a reputation as the conscience of the Valley. It is a stature that the Valley itself has granted him. This is an unconscious defence mechanism of capitalism. It hoists some folk heroes quickly so that more lethal revolutionaries do not rise. The swift acceptance of its moral critics helps the Valley sustain, remarkably, the perception that it is largely an ethical place. Never in the history of capitalism has such a wealthy, exclusive and profitable confederation of lucky men maintained this commercially valuable reputation. Even so, Harris has begun to compare the tech industry to the tobacco and processed food businesses. That is how he blunts the most obvious argument against his movement—Aren’t people to blame for their distractions?

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk once scoffed at writers who said they could not finish their novels owing to distractions. He said, “Switch off your phones" and write (the great Alice Munro would have grumbled to herself, “Try raising children with the phone off").

Harris is more sympathetic. He has suggested in his talks and news media interviews that the plight of an average person in the connected world is not very different from that of a smoker’s. A huge industry that employs thousands of people and spends billions of dollars is working very hard to keep us addicted. What chance do even the strong have? Even ascetics check their phones these days. Millions use the phone even to meditate.

The Valley profits immensely from the addiction. Global social media advertising doubled in two years to $31 billion (around Rs2 trillion) in 2016, but this is a small fraction of what the eventual spending will be. Some of the smartest minds in the world are working long hours to convert human distraction into more money even more efficiently. Why would the attention economy let us have our time back? That would be the equivalent of soft-drink manufacturers stopping the use of sugar.

Harris believes that people would be willing to pay, say $7 a month, to be part of a social network that does not use clever design to trap people and sell their time to advertisers. His ultimate goal is “time well spent", which is also the name of the movement he co-founded. It is based on the notion that if people do not spend time on tech attractions, they would find something meaningful to do. He thinks that almost anything in the real world is better than staring at a screen. This is a popular overestimation of the physical world.

What is it that most people do most of the time? Everything considered, if we were to arrive at the most probable human pose at a given time of day, it would be of a person sitting by a window and staring at life. This might seem meaningful today when people have become zombies on the Web, but not long ago it was described as sloth. And what do most people do for fun in the real world? A man encounters another man at a party and says, “What’s up?", the other one responds, “What’s up?", and they look around to see if there is anyone more interesting. Then they would have ethanol with glucose and food that is, for all practical purposes, sugar. And this would be, most probably, in the nighttime, which would mean that they would wake up late next morning. This, too, is unhealthy.

Of course, there are healthier ways to meet people and very meaningful ways to enjoy the company of friends and family. But then there are healthier ways to enjoy social media too. Turn off the notifications, visit Facebook only once a day, do not click on the cat videos, read selectively and read Lounge. Harris, who himself does most of this, says that the tech companies make such habits extremely difficult. But then there are mammoth industries that make healthy fun and healthy eating almost impossible. People distinguish themselves by overcoming the hell that a majority has created. This is the way of the world.

Harris thinks that a world that has been enslaved by design aspires to do much better things with its time. But perhaps he overrates the world.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

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