“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships and our children.”
So says the Center for Humane Technology, a new group started by some of the early investors and employers who helped build Google and Facebook, to raise awareness about technology addiction. The group has partnered with the watchdog group Common Sense Media, to develop a nationwide awareness campaign called “The Truth About Tech.”
A $7 million advertising campaign is planned to reach 55,000 public schools in the U.S. In addition, Common Sense said it will use $50 million in donated media and airtime to educate students, parents and teachers about the negative effects of technology.
The new group also plans to begin lobbying for laws to limit the influence of major tech companies. It is starting by supporting two pieces of legislation. One is a bill co-authored by Senator Edward J. Markey, (D-Massachusetts), calling for research on technology’s impact on children’s health: the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act.
The group also supports a bill introduced in the California legislature by State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat, to require an online platform, such as Instagram and Twitter, to identify when an account is an automated account.
“Technology is so fast-paced, and government needs to be nimble when it comes to spaces like the Internet, where automated accounts are proliferating more quickly than we can even track them,” Hertzberg told Mashable.com.
“The timing is critical for lawmakers, tech experts, and thought leaders like (Common Sense founder and CEO) Jim Steyer to come together and figure out the best way to equip users to recognize this technology that seeks to misinform and even exploit them.”
Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube “are not neutral products,” the Center for Humane Technology website states. “They are part of a system designed to addict us.” Regarding technology’s impact on our democracy, “Social media rewards outrage, false facts, and filter bubbles – which are better at capturing attention – and divides us so we can no longer agree on truth.”
As former Silicon Valley insiders, those spearheading the effort are well-equipped for their mission, said Tristan Harris, the group’s leader, a former in-house ethicist at Google. “We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works.”
Along with Harris, other members of the group include Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager; Lynn Fox, a former Apple and Google communications executive; Dave Morin, a former Facebook executive; Justin Rosenstein, who created Facebook’s Like button and co-founded Asana; Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook; and Renée DiResta, a technologist who studies bots.
The group also wants to reform the tech industry, using a website spelling out the negative health effects of certain apps, and strategies to build healthier digital products.
Steyer said the Truth About Tech campaign was patterned after antismoking drives and is targeted to reach children. “Tech companies are conducting a massive, real-time experiment on our kids, and, at present, no one is really holding them accountable,” he said. Common Sense and other advocacy groups and children’s health experts have publicly called for Facebook to recall Messenger Kids, its new messaging app.
There are signs that tech executives are becoming aware of the problems the Center wants to address. Apple CEO Timothy D. Cook, recently told The Guardian that he would not let his nephew use social media. Facebook partner Sean Parker also questioned the effect of the social network. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
“You see a degree of hypocrisy with all these guys in Silicon Valley,” Steyer said.