Who makes your apps? Questioning the policy-makers of the digital world

Your Facebook news feed never ends.

You can keep scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling forever, and unlike this article, you’ll never reach the end.

Instagram is no different.

Time Well Spent founder Tristan Harris asks what he believes he’s the quintessential question, “Who are these tech companies beholden to?”bea18a36d70f556daa9369413d7218388b2aa14f_2880x1620

Tech companies are designing and engineering their apps to keep you addicted. One of the most widespread design principles of today’s technology is to get you in as soon as possible, but make it increasingly difficult to leave.

Who are these tech companies beholden to?

More time spent in app = more engagement = more advertising dollars.

“It means that while they want to benefit us, that’s not who they’re beholden to. They’re beholden to the advertiser,” Harris said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher.

He calls for “market intervention” to correct these priorities and make tech companies value their users’ time, and said the best form of intervention would be “something like an organic food movement for the tech industry.”

Similar to how people are willing to pay more for organic food because it’s healthier and less damaging to the environment, such a revolution would introduce technology that is paid for by users instead of advertisers. 

“Let’s charge more for something that’s actually good for people, or aligned with people’s interests,” Harris said. “But that gets into a whole other conversation, admitting parts of the product today are not aligned with people’s interests.”

He likened that admission to the tobacco industry’s attempts to develop a “safe cigarette,” which were scuppered because releasing such a product would make it more obvious that “normal” cigarettes are unhealthy. Most tech companies, he noted, won’t admit to themselves that their products can have negative effects on people’s lives.

Called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” by Atlantic magazine, Tristan Harris was formerly a design ethicist at Google and now is a leader in Time Well Spent, a movement to align technology with our humanity. Time Well Spent aims to heighten consumer awareness about how technology shapes our minds, empower consumers with better ways to use technology and change business incentives and design practices to align with humanity’s best interest.

Here’s an excellent article by the 1843 Magazine on this topic.

Tristan Harris is not the only person who is persuading the world to take a second look at the motives of the Silicon Valley giants.

The technologist and social media influencer Anil Dash has been an early, vocal activist for moral imagination in the digital sphere, including advocating for metrics that encourage generative behaviours online.image

On “On Being with Krista Tippett”, Anil Dash talks about how small choices that technology companies make can have huge impacts on our behaviours and cultures.

 

“About a dozen years ago was I was building some of the early blogging and social media tools. And the tools that my friends and I built were used to publish and launch Gawker and Huffington Post and many of these early blogs that became sort of seminal to the medium.

And it was interesting because there were hints all along that the choices we made, like on a whiteboard in our meeting room, had implications. So for example, there’s a box you type in, just like when you write an email, the box you type in when you write a message. And we would made the box bigger in the publishing tool, and the posts on Gawker and on Huffington Post would get longer, right?

And we see this today where — anybody who’s used Instagram, you see yourself — you see people framing their photo to be square because it’s going to be shared in a square format, even though the phone itself can take a rectangular photo, and every other photo over the last century has been a certain other shape, and here we are making this adjustment.”

Anil Dash talks about how, although tech companies and designers have such control, they’re often the first to throw their hands up and deny responsibility over the effects of their choices. He believes that the widespread mentality that technology is neutral is not sustainable.

“So like [Facebook says], “We’re a neutral platform anybody can publish on.” And then when you get to the current state of affairs, which is when you sell advertising, you are brokering attention. And so something that draws more attention and has more emotional appeal will be more successful and more lucrative. Then you say, well, some of the things that are most attention-getting aren’t true.

In his 99U talk, Anil Dash asks the question, “Who makes your apps?”

He questions the ethical considerations that go behind the decision made in the technology that we use. He asks “whose values” drive what choices you get to pick when you choose your gender on Facebook?

Both Anil Dash and Tristan Harris are passionate about the ethics behind our daily technology, and they urge us to do something about it. Question it.

The policy-makers of our country are determined by democracy. Maybe it’s time to bring democracy to the policy-makers of our technology. It’s time for us to take a second look at the world government that runs from Silicon Valley but denies any responsibility.

As Krista Tippett and Anil Dash most aptly put it, “it’s time for tech’s moral reckoning.”

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Kapilan M

Kapilan is an 18 year old who's passionate about technology, design and the future. A technology journalist and an award-winning public speaker, he helps startups and charity organisations communicate their ideas to the world.

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