In recent months, a spate of current and former tech executives have taken to the media to evangelize variations of the same message: Social media is harming humanity. Sean Parker, who served as Facebook’s first president, warned that social media “exploit[s] a vulnerability in human psychology,” addicting children while interfering with productivity. Chamath Palihapitiya, once Facebook’s vice president “for user growth,” opined that social media is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” After co-engineering the Facebook “Like” button and Google’s Gchat messaging system, Justin Rosenstein bemoaned the effects of his contributions.
The onslaught of techie contrition, however, isn’t a prelude to meaningful change — it’s a business opportunity.
What makes these grievances appealing is that they’re ostensibly antidotal. Over the course of roughly a decade, Facebook and other Silicon Valley social media platforms have mutated into ubiquitous forces. Approximately 70 percent of Americans use social media — a statistic that is concerning in light of admonitory reports about social media’s impact on mental health, particularly among younger users. That figures who helped develop those platforms now appear more scrupulous shows that Silicon Valley is now profiting from efforts to rectify its own ills.
Capitalizing on this notion is the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), a cohort of tech-industry veterans who purportedly seek to render technology less, as they call it, “addictive.” CHT’s plan, though scarce in detail, is multi-pronged: lobbying Congress to pressure hardware companies like Apple and Samsung to change their design standards, raising consumer awareness of harmful technologies and “empowering [tech] employees” to advocate for design decisions that command less user attention. The organization is helmed by former Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris — who the Atlantic deems the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” — with Rosenstein and a horde of Silicon Valley heavyweights on its advisory board.
The crisis CHT attempts to solve is structural. Social-media firms are agents of the much broader system of surveillance capitalism, wherein user data is harvested and sold to advertisers. Yet, as Maya Indira Ganesh has observed, CHT frames the issue as a matter of individual concern. “They see the problem as being about individual attention,” rather than corporate predation, Ganesh writes. The solution, then, is to urge individuals to bear the onus of responsibility for their engineering and consumption of technology, while simply requesting that companies, via a few user-interface tweaks, do better.
For those companies that apparently meet the design criteria — which, so far, lack any objective metrics—cries of tech reform offer a PR bonanza. CHT promotes a number of firms, specializing in such areas as meditation and sleep, as exemplars of “humane design.” It’s likely not a coincidence that the founders of one of those companies, productivity-software startup Asana, are Rosenstein and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. Meanwhile, Palihapitiya has suggested his venture-capital firm, Social Capital, will invest in startups that seek to provide “peace and prosperity for all,” echoing the timeworn canard that capitalism, when rendered “conscious,” will elevate people out of poverty. The answer, according to this logic, lies not only in individuals’ taking responsibility for their technological engagement, but also in a new, trustworthy enclave of private enterprise.
Inherent in this process of woke-tech brand building is a sense of paternalistic ahistoricism. In her piece “The Tech ‘Regrets’ Industry,” Audrey Watters studies the recent self-flagellation of education-tech dignitaries, many of whom, she notes, act as though they were the first to discover that technology might cause or aggravate social problems. In so doing — in theory, at least — they earn the public’s trust as benevolent, illuminating arbiters of the future. “So it is easy for them to declare: no one could have possibly known,” writes Watters. “And now that these enlightened few do seem to know, they declare loudly they’re here to inform and warn the rest of us.”
The tenets of the tech-remorse movement resemble those of another recent phenomenon: unplugging. Spearheaded by such multimillionaires as Deepak Chopra and Arianna Huffington, “unplugging” is the act of temporarily separating oneself from Internet-connected devices to foster relaxation and social connection. If even for a day or an evening, acolytes argue, turning off one’s phone curbs its noxious, addictive effects — improving sleep, creativity, and productivity. (Relatedly, CHT is fiscally sponsored by Reboot, a nonprofit that hosts the National Day of Unplugging.)
Like the tech reformists, the unplugging contingent burdens the individual with its insistence on personal, rather than institutional, change. Aptly enough, the unplugging movement is a breeding ground for corporate branding. Huffington’s “digital detox” crusade, for example, has spawned a self-help syndicate consisting of books, online courses, apps, podcasts and campus speaking tours. Rather than indicting social-media companies for engineering products that lure and monitor users, Huffington encourages individuals to rely on their “intuition” and “inner wisdom” in order to, in her soundbite-ready words, thrive. All the while, the devices to which they’ll inevitably return, as Evgeny Morozov outlined in 2014, remain unchanged.
The iniquities of social media, of course, won’t disappear if they’re briefly ignored or contained. Instead, addressing them will require companies like Facebook and Google to be viewed holistically: Rather than an isolated scourge, they’re symptoms of an economic system in which profit supersedes public health and societal stability. The answer lies not in a micro-economy of pseudo-conscious nonprofits, books, and startups, but in structures independent of and contrary to the values of capitalism.
Whether championing an hour of smartphone severance or a revised iPhone menu, the trend of tech repentance isn’t a challenge to the bane of surveillance capitalism; it’s merely an upgraded version of it. The smartphone makers, meditation-app companies and other appointees of the tech-reform vanguard will continue to track and monetize user data — the very issues they claim to address — while crowing about business ethics and preaching personal responsibility. While tech executives may admit to creating the problem, they most certainly won’t be the ones to solve it.