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A former Google ethicist argues that social media companies have created an "attention economy" aimed at taking up users' times as much as possible, often with negative health effects.

A former Google ethicist argues that social media companies have created an "attention economy" aimed at taking up users' times as much as possible, often with negative health effects. (Photo: Christopher/Flickr/cc)

Promoting 'Humane Technology,' Former Facebook Workers Aim to Shield Public from Social Media's Harms

Countering the "attention economy" they helped to create, former Facebook and Google employees form coalition to promote models for healthier products

Julia Conley

Citing a desire to "correct a wrong," several former employees of the tech giants Facebook and Google are joining forces to counter what they view as the widespread negative impact of the companies they helped to form.

Amid reports that frequent use of Facebook can lead to depression, calls by pediatricians to discontinue the company's messaging app geared towards children, and concerns over Russia's use of the platform to influence the 2016 election, four of the company's former employees and investors are joining with a technologist and two former Google workers to create the Center for Humane Technology, aimed at fighting for a greater understanding of and controls on tech companies' ill effects.

The Center will work with nonprofit watchdog group Common Sense Media to mount an advertising campaign in 55,000 public schools across the U.S., aimed at educating students and parents about social media addiction.

"The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies—Google and Facebook—and where are we pointing them? We're pointing them at people's brains, at children," Tristan Harris, a former ethicist at Google who is leading the Center, told the New York Times.

The coalition will also lobby for the passage of a Senate bill being introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) that would order in-depth research on the impact of technology on children's health, and a state bill in California which would control the abilities of digital bots.

The group's founders believe the union is just the beginning of an effort in Silicon Valley to ensure that products don't harm their users.

"The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies—Google and Facebook—and where are we pointing them? We're pointing them at people's brains, at children."—Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, and Apple CEO Tim Cook have both said recently that they believe social media is harmful to young people, with Cook saying he could not allow his nephew to use social networks.  

And former Facebook executive Charmath Palihapitiya said last year that he had helped create "tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works," and recommended taking long breaks from social media.

The Center for Humane Technology is also creating a website called the Ledger of Harms, which will compile research on technology's harmful effects and help Silicon Valley workers to create healthier platforms and products.

Tech companies have "created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids," said Harris in a statement Monday. "Technologists, engineers, and designers have the power and responsibility to hold themselves accountable and build products that create a better world. Plenty of smart engineers and designers in the industry want to create apps that provide us with the information we need to improve our lives as quickly as possible, instead of just sucking us in for as long as possible."


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