Opinion piece by Robert McNamee
A dystopian technology future overran our lives before we were ready. As a result, we now face issues for which there are no easy answers without much time to act. We embraced the smartphone as a body part without understanding that there would be a downside. We trusted internet platforms to be benign. We reacted too slowly to warning signs. In the eighties and nineties, the philosopher Neil Postman warned us that television had ushered in Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World." Where Orwell worried about the burning of books, Huxley argued that the greater risk would be citizens no longer wanting to read. Postman predicted that television would entertain us to death. He did not live to see the smartphone prove his argument with an exclamation point.
Technology vendors have too many advantages over users. We cannot resist the allure of smartphones. Internet platforms apply their networks, design skills, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to capture our attention and hold it. They exploit the weakest links in human psychology to create dependence and behavioral addiction. Heavy doses of fun and dopamine keep us hooked and make us vulnerable. It happens to toddlers, grade schoolers, preteens, teens, and adults. Not everyone who is online is addicted. Not everyone has been manipulated. But no one can escape the consequences of these addictions and manipulations, as they affect enough people to undermine even the most successful countries. If we are to be a functioning democracy, we cannot allow the present situation to continue. If we want our kids to grow up to be functioning adults, we must force change. If we adults want to preserve agency over our lives, we have to stand up. Next- generation technology from the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence will compound the current problems if we do not take action now.
As users, we have more power than we realize. Internet platforms need us. They need our attention. When we give it, they have enormous — sometimes decisive — influence on our lives. Today the platforms’ reach is mostly limited to smartphones. Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are expanding the footprint, followed by cars, TVs, refrigerators, toys, and other devices. We will increasingly be surrounded by devices that listen, watch, and record everything we do. The resulting data will then be processed by artificial intelligence and algorithms that will manipulate our attention and behavior in ways that create economic value for platform owners. Today we have some control over the degree to which IoT devices influence our life because most of us are not yet using them. Take the time to consider the dark side of any new technology before embracing its convenience. Our voice and our choices will be decisive. We can go along like sheep, or we can insist on a new model: human- driven technology. Individually, we struggle to resist, but collectively, we have great power. To exercise that power, we must leave our digital cocoon to interact with friends, neighbors, and total strangers.
Engaging with a wide range of opinions is essential for democracy. The U.S. has forgotten the essential value of compromise, which starts with listening to and acknowledging the legitimacy of different points of view. If we are to break out of filter bubbles and preference bubbles — whether online or off — we need to invest the time necessary to be better informed. We need to be appropriately skeptical about what we read, watch, and hear, applying critical thinking to content from all sources, seeking out different perspectives, and validating content before we share it. The bibliographic essay at the end of this book includes sources you can use to investigate the quality of publishers and validity of content.
Forcing Silicon Valley to embrace human-driven technology would offer giant benefits to society but may require an effort analogous to the long campaign against smoking. We hate to think about the harm internet platforms are inflicting on us. Making the changes necessary to stop internet addiction, election interference, and privacy invasions will be hard work. It would be so much more pleasant to play another round of Candy Crush or check Instagram. I get it. My own journey from cheerleader to activist has been a struggle. I have had to face unpleasant facts about platforms in which I have been an investor and advisor, as well as about my own usage of technology. It has not made me popular in Silicon Valley, but it had to be done. There are times that require each of us do the right thing, no matter the cost. For me, this is one of those times.
How about you? Are you concerned about children getting addicted to texting or video games? Do you worry about all the kids who cannot put down their smartphones or video games? Have you known a preteen girl who has been body shamed online or a teen who has suffered from fear of missing out? Do you worry about the consequences of foreign countries interfering in our elections? Do you wonder about the moral implications of American products being used to promote ethnic cleansing in other countries? Do you have trepidation about constant surveillance? Are you concerned about being manipulated by artificial intelligence? These are not hypothetical questions.
Here is some good news: internet platforms respond to pressure. We know this from recent experience. We collectively stimulated enough pressure that Facebook implemented much better rules for election advertising and Google announced humane design features in its new smartphone. These first steps never would have happened in the absence of public pressure. And each of us can exert at least two forms of pressure: we can change our behavior online and we can demand that politicians take action.
Consider your own usage patterns on Facebook and other platforms. What kinds of things do you post? How often? Is any of it inflammatory? Do you try to convince people? Have you joined Groups dedicated to political issues? Do you get into fights over ideas on social media? Are there people whose posts consistently provoke you? Have you ever blocked people with whom you disagree? Do not feel bad if the answer to any of these questions is yes. The evidence is that most users of Facebook have done these things at one time or another because the algorithms are designed to promote that kind of activity. Now that we know what is going on, what are we going to do about it?
Changing behavior starts with reconsidering your relationship to the internet platforms. That is what I did, especially for Facebook and Google. I still use Facebook and Twitter, but I have changed my behavior, especially on Facebook. I no longer allow Facebook to press my emotional buttons. I wish it were not necessary, but I no longer post anything political or react to any political posts. It took six months, but my feed is now dominated by the music side of my life, birthdays, and puppies. It might work for you, too. In addition, I erased most of my Facebook history. Facebook seems to have a built-in bias in favor of disinformation and fake news, so I am really careful about the sources of information on Facebook and elsewhere on the web. To protect my privacy, I do not use Facebook Connect to log in to other sites or press Like buttons I find around the web. I don’t use Instagram or WhatsApp because of my concern about what Facebook is doing to those platforms. I avoid using Google wherever possible because of its data-collection policies. Avoiding Google is inconvenient, so I have turned it into a game. I use DuckDuckGo as my search engine because it does not collect search data. I use Signal for texting. I don’t use Gmail or Google Maps. I use a tracking blocker called Ghostery so that Google, Facebook, and others cannot follow me around the web. I am far from invisible on the web, but my shadow is smaller.
I also have made changes relative to my devices. I use Apple products because that company respects the privacy of my data, while Android does not. I still check my phone way too often, but I have turned off notifications for practically everything. I only allow notifications for texts, and even then only vibrations. I read books on my iPad, so I keep it in Night Shift mode, which takes all the blues out of the display, reducing eye strain and making it much easier to fall asleep at night. I often put my iPhone in monochrome mode to reduce the visual intensity of the device and, therefore, the dopamine hit. I do not recharge my devices in the bedroom.
I bought an Amazon Alexa smart speaker on the first day. About an hour after I installed the device in the kitchen, an ad for Alexa came on the TV, and my Alexa responded. I realized immediately that Alexa would always be listening and that no one should trust it to respect privacy. My brand new Alexa went into a storage container, never to return. Unfortunately, the entire world of connected televisions, appliances, and other devices — the Internet of Things — shares Alexa’s snoopiness. Unscrupulous vendors can use IoT devices for surveillance. Incompetent vendors may leave customers vulnerable to hacking by bad actors. All vendors will collect masses of data; no one knows what they will do with it. My advice is to avoid IoT devices, or at least avoid putting them on your network, until vendors commit to strong protection.
Data privacy is sufficiently abstract that few people take steps to protect it. I recommend using a password manager such as 1Password to ensure secure access to websites. Despite the many hacks of data from servers and the harvesting of friends data from Facebook, few of us have experienced much harm, at least not that we can perceive. Too few among us realize that our data is being used to build artificial intelligence systems that predict our behavior. When you combine that predictive AI with manipulative technology of internet platforms, bad things will happen. What starts out as creepy can easily become unhealthy, if not dangerous. Until the internet platforms and IoT hardware companies demonstrate a commitment to safeguarding users, it makes no sense to trust them with your data or anything else.
If you are a parent of a child eighteen or younger, think about whether you are a good digital role model. How often do you check your devices in the presence of your kids? How much do you know about your children’s online activity? What is the ratio of online activity to outdoor play in your family? How often do you go online together with your kids? To what degree does your children’s school employ computers and tablets? At what age did that start? How often do your children’s classes engage in traditional group learning, where the students are encouraged to participate with classmates, as opposed to one-on-one activity?
The medical profession has a message for parents: smartphones, tablets, and the apps that run on them are not good for children. When it comes to protecting children, there is mounting evidence that the only thing kids should do on smartphones is make calls. Just about everything else kids do on smartphones poses a threat of one kind or another. We used to think that kids were safer playing with technology than playing outdoors. We were wrong.
At the margin, research suggests that less exposure to devices and apps is better at all ages but essential for younger children. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents not allow any screen exposure for children under two. There is a growing body of research indicating that parents should limit the screen time of kids under twelve to much less than current averages. The rationale for early exposure — preparing kids for life in a digital world — has been negated by evidence that screen time impedes childhood development to a far greater degree.
Given how deeply smartphones, tablets, and PCs have penetrated everyday life, cutting screen time is much easier said than done. For example, many schools insist on using PCs or tablets in the classroom, despite evidence that computers and tablets may be counterproductive in that setting, both because of the negative effects of dopamine stimulation and a reduction in social interaction. It may not take much screen time to trigger an excess of dopamine in kids. Doctors have observed that kids with too much screen time suffer from a variety of developmental issues, including an inability to pay attention and depression. With preteens and teens, overproduction of dopamine remains an issue, but the exploitation of social media by bullies is also a problem. Even kids in their teens are unprepared to cope with the addictive powers of internet platforms on mobile devices.
Parents face a daunting challenge. Even if they control technology at home, how do they protect their children elsewhere? There are devices everywhere, and too many people willing to share them, unaware of the danger. One possible first step is to organize small groups of parents in a format equivalent to a book club. The goal would be to share ideas, organize device-free play dates, and provide mutual support towards a goal that requires collective action. Small groups can be an effective first step in a long campaign to change the cultural zeitgeist.
Adults are less vulnerable to technology than kids, but not enough so to be safe. Smartphones and internet platforms are designed to grab your attention and hold it. Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms are filled with conspiracy theories, disinformation, and fake news disguised as fact. Facebook and YouTube profit from outrage, and their algorithms are good at promoting it. Even if the outrage triggers do not work on you, they work on tens of millions of people whose actions affect you. Elections are an example. Facebook in particular has profited from giving each user his or her own reality, which contributes to political polarization. Facebook has managed to connect 2.2 billion people and drive them apart at the same time.
One way we can defend ourselves is to change the way we use technology. There is evidence that internet platforms produce happiness for the first ten minutes or so of use, but beyond that, continued use leads to progressively greater dissatisfaction. The persuasive technologies embedded in the platforms keep users engaged. We cannot help but scroll down just a bit farther, in the hope of something really wonderful. We did not understand the dark side of internet platforms before we got hooked, but we can modify our behavior now. We can track our usage with apps like Moment and create device- free time periods or locations in our day. We can decide not to embrace new technologies that do not respect us. We can even delete some applications.
I would like to think that the people who make smartphones and internet platforms will devote themselves to eliminating the harmful aspects. They have taken steps, but they have a lot of hard work to do. Policy makers in Washington and the states can create incentives for the internet giants to do right by their users. Executives in Silicon Valley should reassess their business plans in light of what we now know. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley is like a club. It is hard for anyone, even the CEOs of major tech companies, to speak out against companies as powerful as the internet platforms.
The platforms act as though users will be too preoccupied to look out for their own self-interest, to insist on dramatic change. Let’s prove them wrong. Parents, users, and concerned citizens can make their voices heard. We live at a time when citizens are coming together to bring about change. The effective collective action by Black Lives Matter, the March for Our Lives, the Women’s March, and Indivisible should inspire us. All of them use Facebook to organize events, which would be poetic justice in this case. Bringing people together in the real world is the perfect remedy for addiction to internet platforms. If we can do that, the world will be a better place.
- From "ZUCKED: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe," by Roger McNamee. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright (c) 2019 by Roger McNamee.
Roger McNamee has been a Silicon Valley investor for 35 years. He has co-founded successful funds in venture, crossover and private equity including Elevation Partners, where he still works
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.