"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.”
These words were uttered by Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google back in the day, who is heading a new group aimed at ending the alleged assault on young minds by social media. With his words, Mr. Harris has fired the first of many salvos to wake up the formerly close-knit, tight-lipped Silicon Valley fraternity.
The group’s initiative, labeled The Truth About Tech, will be seeded by $7 million from nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense Media and with capital raised by the Center for Humane Technology. Its goal is to enlighten students, parents, and teachers about the threats technology pose to the mental well-being of children seemingly becoming addicted to social media use. The damage includes depression. The campaign spearheaded by Harris is not breaking news. I have covered these very topics in this space long before.
So while not exactly hot off the presses, the initiative takes on a new urgency in the wake of a report detailing Facebooks latest efforts to increase user numbers by creating a platform for kids to chat at an early age. Pediatricians and mental health experts called on Facebook last week to forego developing the messaging service. which attempts to corral youngsters as young as six. Facebook is not alone, as YouTube Kids is also under fire for presenting possibly harmful and objectionable content to fertile and impressionable young minds.
Mr. Harris’ words resonate for the simple reason that the two tech titans hold immeasurable sway over the tech world. And when folks like Tim Cook of Apple fame say he would not let his young nephew use social media - that’s saying something.
Cook may seem like a veritable interloper compared to remarks by those more intimate with the tech titans. Early Facebook and Google investor, Roger McNamee, has spoken of his regrets about seeing what the companies in which he invested have turned into. And he looks at it as an opportunity to “right a wrong.” He said he had joined the Center for Humane Technology because he was horrified by what he has helped create as an early Facebook investor. "McNamee maintains that the companies have become monsters which, due to their business models and practices, are devouring our souls and controlling our lives", I wrote some months back.
The angst is echoed by Facebook investor Sean Parker, also recently said of the social network that “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” His alarm is mirrored by Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist who was an early employee at Facebook, who said recently that the social network was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
A particular worry has been directed at smartphones, which are, as you are aware, ubiquitous. Many decry a situation where families don’t converse anymore, but sit idly and individually immersed- no, mesmerized - by their smartphones. For children, it may lead to lower IQs and worse. A recent study, as I pointed out some months ago, stated that “the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance.”
It would seem that for such influential platforms as those created by Google and Facebook, there should be some watchdog, some oversight. Absent that, the effort by Harris and others in at the margins of the industry are not only well-intentioned but correct in conducting their campaign. Future innovation, indeed our entire future, in general, will depend on young minds maturing normally without undue outside forces influencing or interfering with that development.
One quip by McNamee is frightening and underscores the urgency of the situation:
“Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger. And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment.”