Every day I see people of all ages walking the streets glued to their phones. Some studies report that average consumers check their smartphone 150 times a day and spend nearly an hour each day on Facebook.
Now, early Facebook and Google investor Roger McNamee, has spoken of his regrets about seeing what the companies in which he invested have turned into. McNamee believes that the companies have become monsters which, due to their business models and practices, are devouring our souls and controlling our lives.
Put simply, they have become too big and too global to be held accountable, according to McNamee. For comparison of scale, and to put their reach into context, these tech behemoths have as many followers as Christianity and Islam do. He points out that their arrival on the tech scene has been accompanied by many wonderful developments and life enhancements. However, he contends that their unintended consequences have become a menace to public health and to democracy.
At the core of the problem, McNamee maintains, is that Facebook, Google, and others exploit human nature, creating addictive behaviors that compel consumers to check for new messages, respond to notifications, and seek validation from technologies whose only goal is to generate profits for their owners. According to some industry experts, the only competitor they have as they seek to monopolize our lives is sleep itself. How we spend our waking hours, how happy we are, is of little consequence, so long as we are engaged with their technology. The result: short term distraction and immediate gratification at the expense of long term, negative consequences.
All the while, these social platforms amass vast amounts of information on the users and, hence, have tremendous power and the opportunity to exert influence over them. They may objectively come to know more about you than you do yourself – even credit card histories. Not only that, but Facebook has admitted it can control its users’ happiness or sadness based on its threads and news feeds. Facebook, for example, has told advertisers that it has the ability to target teens who were sad or depressed. This makes those inidividuals more susceptible to advertising. Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris calls this “brain hacking.”
The culprit is not the companies themselves or the products they produce. No, the fault lies in business models that are based on advertising and greed. This, McNamee opines, aims to maximize attention at all costs, leading to ever more aggressive brain hacking. Meanwhile, there are no watchdogs. Anyone who wants to pay for access to addicted users can work with Facebook and YouTube. Plenty of bad people have done it, including criminals and terrorist recruiters.
Because they glean so much information from users’ posts, chats and the like, more is at stake than just the “zombification” of the population. Even basic democratic and free enterprise principles are at risk. Consider that a federal agency confronted Facebook about the use of its tools by financial firms, to discriminate based on race in the housing market. Also, America’s intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the US election, and that Facebook was a key platform for spreading misinformation.
It may be too late to wean the truly addicted, dependent user from this type of behavior. In my opinion, a grass-roots initiative must begin early, in schools, to attempt to balance the tech dependence by returning to the tried and true disciplines of reading and writing. Missing from McNamee’s outrage is the damage being done when children and adults fail to read quality material – not just the classics. Future generations will be missing out on the simple joys and benefits that accrue from wholesome reading. The hope is that parents also get the message, so their children won’t be the next generation lost to brain hacking.
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