Design Renaissance – To Be or Not to Be

As we continue our conversation about the use of social media for social change, we come to design thinker, Tristan Harris, whose tagline states that he “helps the technology industry more consciously and ethically shape the human spirit and human potential.” In his TedTalk, “How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day” (April 2017), Harris describes how YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat, and just about every other social media platform are in a race for our attention and time. Drawn in by Snapstreaks, Facebook notifications, and YouTube and Netflix autoplays, we hand over our time unwillingly, never to be seen again. Harris poses a sobering question: “At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time. What will be time well spent for ours?”

Fortunately, Harris doesn’t leave us there. Once he has explained the way big tech companies use “big data” to direct our minds and our moments, he turns the idea on its head, with his inspiration for a design renaissance. What does this mean and how do we get there? Admittedly, this is a hard concept to grasp…and even harder to imagine coming to fruition. For somehow these tech companies, particularly Apple and Google which design the operating systems and software on our phones, must make an about-face and use their big data in a more altruistic fashion.

Ay, there’s the rub. Rather than steering our attention toward matters that make them money, data controllers working behind the curtain of social media sites and entertainment streamers will literally change their tune and ask us how we want to spend our time. Based upon our answers, Harris suggests, personalized data would be employed to our benefit and direct us in paths that can make our requests come true. In an interview with Wired online (7/26/17), Harris presents it this way: “Let’s do a massive find-and-replace from the manipulative timeline to the timeline we would’ve wanted to have happened.” So what do I say in response? I say “Let’s!” – indeed, “Let’s do it!” But wait. Who is us exactly who are going to initiate this design renaissance?

With the best of intentions, I pursued Harris’s Time Well Spent movement and investigated his commendable non-profit, Center for Humane Technology, whose mission is to “reverse ‘human downgrading’ and re-align technology with humanity.” (See their slogan in the header image.) However, although I was impressed by his three years as a Google Design Ethicist studying ways that “technology should “ethically” steer the thoughts and actions of billions of people from screens” (tristanharris.com), I failed to see how and when Google, or any other tech company or SNS (social networking site), had made efforts toward such a realignment, or any indication that they would ever be incentivized to do so.  

In both his TedTalk and the Wired interview, Harris presents the idea of Facebook replacing the Comment button with a Let’s Meet button. Rather than ranting and raving inside a comment box, site visitors could invite their Facebook friends to meet for dinner to discuss their views in a more ‘humane’ setting. But Wired’s Nick Thompson asked the obvious question, would people communicating with their friends on Facebook really rather get together for dinner? If you were to ask me, I would say, not really. And even if so, I don’t know that such a button would help me feel empowered over my attention and time. Or, maybe Harris is talking about taking baby steps toward a better humanity. But I think the tech giants are not very interested in coming down to his, or my level.

Harris goes on to suggest that a major next step is to force greater business accountability in the internet economy, especially when it comes to advertising. I couldn’t agree more. But then Harris goes on to say that the real problem is not the advertising itself, since it is often targeted exactly to our needs and wants, but rather it is the “attention economy” that is the problem – the advertising model that wants users to keep their time and attention on their platform as long as possible. Certainly, I cannot argue with the latter, but I would argue that the former, the advertising itself, has its own inherent evil in the online realm.

Possibly I am too much a cynic – but, if so, I am a reluctant one. I do want to believe. I hope the brilliance of Tristan Harris will be enough to influence the powers that be to join together to launch his design renaissance. In the meantime, I will continue to propose that those of us with some media literacy help other users better navigate their online experience, rather than expecting that the internet economy will transform itself anytime soon.

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