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First Silicon Valley Sold You Social Media—Now It’s Trying to Sell You the Antidote

March 12, 2018 in Blogs

By Julianne Tveten, In These Times

Selling solutions to problems created by the tech industry presents a big business opportunity.

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 …read more


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