Nov 9, 2017 - Technology

Silicon Valley's guilty conscience

Matt Rourke, Mark Lennihan, Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

We all know that people have become addicted to their smart phones — and now Silicon Valley insiders say this is exactly what the tech giants wanted. Founding Facebook president Sean Parker told Mike Allen yesterday that he has become "something of a conscientious objector" to social media, joining the small group of insider voices exposing and criticizing Silicon Valley's operations.

The big picture: The shiny newness and mystery of Silicon Valley is wearing off. Inner operations of the most powerful tech giants are being exposed — Facebook pitches partisan data to help election advertisers, foreign actors can easily manipulate Twitter, and now developers have always intentionally designed apps to keep our brains addicted. The insiders who are speaking up are turning on the tech world they helped create — as if they're trying to clear their guilty consciences.

  • Here's what Parker said: "The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'" He explained that Facebook's "likes" and "comments" notifications are dopamine hits, keeping addiction alive, "It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."
  • Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google who has worked at Apple, Wikia and Microsoft, has spoken out about how our minds have been "hijacked" by our phones.On 60 Minutes earlier this year, he held up his smart phone, saying, "This thing is a slot machine... every time I check my phone, I"m playing the slot machine to see, 'What did I get?' This is one way to highjack people's minds, to form a habit."
  • He added that "there's a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible."
  • Justin Rosenstein, who created the Facebook "like" button and helped develop GChat, has self-imposed limits to his access of smart phone apps because of their addictive properties.He told the Guardian: "It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences."
  • Biz Stone, who co-founded Twitter and recently returned to work for the company, has expressed some of his own regrets about how Twitter was built. He told Inc.: "We made a mistake when we added the Mentions tab. All of a sudden, you could see anyone who was mentioning you on the site. We put the onus on users to block someone."

Don't forget: These advocates for change in Silicon Valley once worked to create this environment, and many still profit from it. And that point isn't lost on the critics.

  • Ben Thompson, who writes the tech blog Stratechery and has worked for Apple, Microsoft and Automattic, tweeted: "Silicon Valley critics eating up Sean Parker's comments about Facebook because it fits their pre-existing views is certainly fascinating to watch." He has since deleted the tweet.
  • Hunter Walk, a former prominent Google/YouTube employee, replied to Thompson: “[W]aiting for one of our luminaries who comes to this realization to then also decide their fortune is dirty & donate all their money to social causes."

Reality check: Despite all of their issues, these companies are reporting record users and profits. And polls, including a SurveyMonkey poll for Axios, have found that they retain broad support nationwide.

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