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.

“This is a version of climate change, ” Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media and friend of the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, said on stage. “Just like we’re watching the extraordinary changes in our physical environment, we’re watching extraordinary changes in our social, emotional, and cognitive environment.”

If Wednesday's event hoped to provide a trigger, it largely came in the form of detailing how a group of young billionaires have enriched themselves by altering the chemistry of kid's brains. That may sound dystopian, but as Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at University of California, San Francisco, made clear on stage, it is very much a reality.

Every time a kid collects coins in Minecraft, or catches a Charizard in Pokemon Go, their brain rewards them with a reach of dopamine. “It tells you,' This feelings good. I want more ,' ” Lustig explained. “But if you overstimulate dopamine neurons they die.”

“We see the outgrowth of these changes in the brain that are manifesting themselves as mental illness in children, ” Lustig told, pointing to research that has shown spikes in the rate of depression and suicidal thoughts among kids over the last eight years. “It's not a drug, but it might as well be, ” Lustig said of the way tech is designed to give users constant rewards. “It does the same thing.”

Grownups aren't immune, of course. Facebook's News Feed algorithm targets the same pleasure centres as children's games, working behind the scenes to figure out precisely what kind of post you're most likely to like. It's this very feedback loop that enabled Russian trolls to spread divisive propaganda during the 2016 election by setting up Facebook pages that would appeal to people's most vivid feelings, be it love or loathing. The more people engaged with the memes and posts these pages shared, the more memes and posts from those pages they'd see.

Over the course of the conference, a range of speakers including Democratic senator Mark Warner referred to these negative effects as the “unintended consequences” of technological progress. But as Harris first discovered back when he worked at Google, craving is precisely the intended outcome of ad-based business. It's just that in Silicon Valley, they have a different word for it: engagement.

“When you use technology, you have goals, ” Harris explained. “When you land on YouTube, it doesn't know any of those goals. It has one aim, whose purpose is to induce you forget those goals that you have.”

‘We live in an environment, this digital city without even realizing it. That city is totally unregulated.'

Tristan Harris

Harris knows it's not enough to simply turn your telephone to gray or to stop using these tools wholly. Always-on technology is now cooked into the social fabric. The teen who quits Snapchat risks missing out on the primary style his peers communicate. The employee who declines to answer her boss's after-hours email dangers losing career possibilities. Which is why Harris is calling on the companies themselves to redesign their products with ethics , not purely profits, in intellect, and calling on Congress to write basic consumer protections into law.

“We live in an environment, this digital city without even realizing it, ” Harris said. “That city is wholly unregulated. It’s the Wild West. It’s like, build a casino where you are want with flashing lightings and flashing signs. Maximize developer access to do whatever they want to people. Shouldn't there be some zoning laws? “

It's acutely apparent that those laws won't just happen on their own. They require a groundswell of public pressure on both tech companies and politicians. If there was ever a time to apply such pressure, it's this age of unprecedented activism. After all, if tech platforms are influencing the way people think about the world, the style they think about each other, and the style they think about themselves, then they're also influencing the route we talk about women's rights, the climate, and immigration. If we're going to fight over those issues, we might as well fight for a healthier arena.

Ethical Tech

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