clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Making Sense of Tech’s Great “Awokening”

Former executives at Google, Facebook, and Apple are now decrying the negative effects of the products they helped build. What’s motivating them, and what can they do to atone?

The back of a woman’s head in between two laptop screens representing an angel and a devil Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For decades, Silicon Valley has championed its products as symbols of inexorable human progress. But the narrative hit a brick wall over the past year, as the very people who built our most powerful digital tools started expressing lots of regret for their creations. A year ago, Leah Pearlman, the cocreator of the Facebook Like button, told The Ringer she feared she had helped usher in a Black Mirror–style dystopia based on shallow metrics. Tony Fadell, a designer of the original iPhone, believes device addiction is harming children. And Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist, has become the face of a growing backlash against the tech giants by the very people who helped them take over the world.

Their frustrations are now coalescing into action. Earlier this month, a group of former tech executives formed the Center for Humane Technology, an advocacy group with a focus on “reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.” Silicon Valley, it seems, is in the midst of a Great Awokening.

My question is, why are we suddenly seeing so many mea culpas from people who were celebrated as rock stars not so long ago?—Victor Luckerson

Molly McHugh: There’s definitely some cachet to turning on your former company, right? You’ve moved on, you’re elsewhere now, you can criticize the things you used to have to promote. So that’s probably part of it. But then the other side of it, is that it’s easy to side with everyone. If so many voices are out there complaining about Facebook and Twitter, it’s really easy to side with them.

Alyssa Bereznak: There’s also been a shift in the relationship between politics and tech. In the Obama years, the White House embraced tech companies (and poached their talent) as a way to streamline (read: fix) government services, and in some cases be more transparent. It wasn’t always completely innocent—and sometimes it felt very much like a vehicle to generate adoring coverage from tech outlets—but most progressives saw it as a way to encourage engagement with the government. Under Trump, it appears these same tools are being used to manipulate the public, and avoid accountability.

Luckerson: Right, it’s really difficult to imagine this amount of self-reflection happening if Hillary Clinton had won, even though we’d still be living in a world where iPhones are addictive and Russians waged a propaganda war on Facebook (though that heightened social awareness due to Trump applies to lots of issues, not just tech).

Bereznak: Definitely, so much of the anger is fueled by the idea that Facebook gave us Trump, and won’t even admit it. It also doesn’t help when your executives’ Russia caveats are being retweeted by the president.

McHugh: LOL yes, that definitely does NOT help. You want to avoid a Trump RT at all costs.

There’s definitely a political motivation in turning on these companies, which are not exactly innocent parties in creating this current political climate. Also the tone-deaf response they’ve given hasn’t helped. I guess what else are you going to do then, if you used to work there? Can you imagine standing up for YouTube or something right now?

Luckerson: I do think it’s encouraging that these executives are moving beyond rhetoric and trying to organize. The Center for Humane Technology is pushing a variety of different strategies, including providing ethics training for engineers, lobbying for stricter regulations of internet platforms, and a series of anti-smoking-style PSAs aimed at children. What’s the most effective way forward for this group?

McHugh: Aside from burn it all down and start over? (Kidding, mostly.)

Bereznak: Before I answer that question I want to point out that, as individuals, tech executives have been wise to the downsides of tech addiction long before organizing to do something about it. In interviews they discuss their love of meditation, or talk about going “off the grid” at Burning Man or during a weekend sweat tent retreat. And don’t even get them started about their iPad time limits for the little ones!

My point is: Part of the reason for this breaking point is that there’s a personal incentive for tech execs. They had kids and were like, “Oh shit, maybe this thing I helped create and scale to impossible levels is ruining their brains.”

Luckerson: I remember reading this story years ago, about executives sending their kids to tech-free schools, and realizing what a hustle Silicon Valley was running on us, making sure they weren’t getting high on their own supply.

McHugh: I think the most effective way is going to be really tough to figure out, honestly. I don’t think we know yet. Dismantling an entire economic structure built around rewarding these companies based on our addictions to them is a tall order.

Luckerson: Tim Cook more or less made Alyssa’s point when he talked about not wanting his nephew on social media.

McHugh: Yeah, Tim Cook works at Apple. Not Facebook. He definitely wants his nephew on an iPhone. On which, he will 100 percent download Facebook. Or at least Instagram.

No one is innocent.

Bereznak: Actually Apple is a good example of a company that listened once a bunch of powerful investors wrote a concerned letter about children’s tech usage. A handful of major investors wrote a letter detailing a list of concerns, and in response the company said it’d create more parental controls in the next version of iOS.

McHugh: So if Facebook or Twitter were going to respond this way, with direct product changes, what would they do? Is the answer to limit our time or to, like … make tools that ACTUALLY keep conspiracies off the platform? Or both?

Luckerson: Personally I think the best route for this group is trying to reach the engineers and executives at the companies where they used to work. These people aren’t famous enough to have clout with the general public but they’re obviously influential among the people designing the products. Reframing product development around a series of core ethics that don’t manipulate the user would be really valuable.

In that big feature about Facebook’s past two years in Wired, the magazine reported that former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya’s recent takedown of the company actually broke through to the higher-ups, and now Mark Zuckerberg has announced these efforts to value “time well spent” (a Tristan Harris phrase) over raw engagement. That’s probably not a direct causal effect but it’s clear there’s a space for these guys to wield some influence.

Bereznak: I agree, and I think the Center for Humane Technology’s plan to create “a Ledger of Harms” as a way to guide concerned engineers is smart. Basically, they’re giving the cogs in Silicon Valley a landing page to cross-reference the orders they receive from higher-ups with studies about what that might actually mean for society. I’m more skeptical about Common Sense’s $50 million ad campaign to warn students, parents, and teachers about the dangers of tech.

Luckerson: I can’t wait to see ’90s-style “JUST SAY NO” ads with kids somehow getting high off iPhones.

Bereznak: That’s exactly why I’m skeptical, Victor!

McHugh: If we were to measure what “success” means for tech companies—changing what DAU and MAUs mean or going with new measurements altogether—that would be significant.

Luckerson: It’s like you said earlier, though. Trying to get such data-driven corporations to value more abstract concepts like human welfare will be really difficult.

McHugh: Yeah, it will take YEARS. Truly! We set it up so that more time meant they were successful. And now more time hath wrought fake news and conspiracy theories and also health and mental issues. But reengineering that is going to be really hard.

It’s like if you tried to rewrite the rules of basketball. Buckets no longer mean points, points are bad, and let’s slow everything down. It would be entirely unintuitive for everyone involved. I don’t mean this to sound like we’re screwed, but there has to be a totally different attitude applied en masse. And it will probably happen by chipping away over time, I’m guessing.

Luckerson: Maybe we can start our own anti-tech advocacy group? Reporters Against Drunk Texting?

McHugh: I am definitely a reporter against drunk texting.

Bereznak: In that category, I am happy to be the poster child for what not to do.