Tristan Harris holds his iPhone in the air, so the whole crowd of lecturers, technologists, physicians, and researchers before him can see the virtual wasteland of his iPhone's home screen. Run are the cluttered, candy-colored icons that a busy brain sees as digital snacks. In their place are but a few utilitarian apps, all set to the same bleak palette of black and white.
Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, wants to show his audience how they, too, can make their phones as visually unappealing as is practicable, reducing them to functional tools rather than time-sucking dolls. He's not doing it to preserve their eyesight, or as some self-help hack to squeeze more time out of the day. Harris is conducting this demonstration because he believes the way tech tools intentionally manipulate the mind has become an existential menace to human beings. Dedicating the iPhone a makeover is one way to wrest some of that control from their inhuman grip.
“I see this as game over, unless we change course. Truly. Genuinely, ” Harris said on stage Wednesday at a conference hosted by the children's advocacy group Common Sense Media. “We cannot live in this world.”
If the rhetoric voices scary, that's intentional. Earlier this week, Harris announced a newly formed coalition of technologists called the Center for Humane Technology, whose central goal is to triggered a mass motion for more ethical technology, in order to put pressure on Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple–the kind that the Center's leadership says has been fully missing in Washington. The Center is partnering with Common Sense Media to plan, among other things, an ad campaign in schools across the country to educate parents, students, and even infants about the dangers of technology addiction. The Truth About Tech conference Wednesday was the first push in that campaign, sending a signal to both DC and Silicon Valley that if they won't do anything to address tech's unhealthy impact, then maybe the public will.
‘I see this as game over, unless we change course.'
Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology
At yet, for all of the talk of a “tech backlash” in the United States, companies like Facebook and Google are still viewed favorably in polls. Despite the criticisms from both the left and the right, people are scarcely marching by the thousands to protest Big Tech. But Harris and other leaders tell maybe they would, if they only understood the style these tools are tailor-made to make addicts of all of us, forever altering the style some 2 billion people on Facebook alone guess, feel, and interact with one another.