Analysis

Tech needs to get worse so it can get better

To make technology less dangerous, make it one-dimensional

Connecting the world didn't come cheap. In a remarkable turn of events, Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, published a long piece in Washington Monthly essentially warning that the social network is a threat to both democracy and the well-being of its users.

It's a stark change from the utopian excitement of only a few years ago in which so many of us believed tech would usher in a newer, better age. And it isn't just Facebook either. Recently, two Apple investors published an open letter saying the phone maker had to do more to combat addiction to technology. There is a change afoot: Suddenly, people are very worried about what tech is doing to us, both as individuals and as societies.

But what is to be done? There's certainly no ending tech; it has too deeply altered social relations, popular culture, economics, and politics. A Pandora's Box has been opened, and there's no closing it.

What we need are things like Diet Facebook — stripped down, less compulsive versions of the platforms and technology we've come to rely on. After all, what is so troubling about our relation to tech is how ubiquitous and all consuming it is. So why not make it more purposeful and specific?

The big tech companies are of course aware of the growing backlash. In an attempt address its problems, Facebook recently announced some forthcoming changes to its news feed to counteract both inflammatory content and so-called “fake news,” and instead focus on what it calls "meaningful interactions."

The economic incentive for Facebook here is clear: Remaining the same not only risks alienating users who may start to associate the social network with negative feeling, it also will likely invite regulatory interference, whether new laws or even antitrust probes. Facebook's only choice is to try and head off these trends before they start in earnest.

But this also highlights the trouble with relying on tech companies to correct course on their own: What is good for individuals and societies may not neatly line up with Facebook's economic needs. As writer Rob Horning argues, Facebook can define “meaningful interaction” however it wants, and will probably do so to maximize the engagement metrics it uses to sell ads. Whether it's actually healthy or good is a different story.

Such is the difficulty in hoping we can only rely on designing our way out of tech's influence. The overarching problem is that after years of designing for engagement, technology is almost too good. Facebook has gotten so effective at showing us viral, click-worthy content that they can be gamed by bad actors. Apple, Samsung, or Google's smartphone design is so effective, and the many apps on them so compelling, that even the most measured of us have trouble putting down our phones.

Web services rely on grabbing user attention, and hardware makers want people to use their devices as much as possible. How then might we actually address the deleterious effects of constantly being exposed to news, updates, social interaction, and distraction?

Neither regulation nor design alone will be enough; rather, it may require a combination of the two — and no small measure of lobbying and innovation. After all, the tension between public and corporate interest isn't new. For example, it took a combination of government action, consumer trends, and invention to propel the rise of electric and green cars. First comes the constraint and demand, then comes the technical response.

What might that look like in tech? It's counterintuitive, but it might be actually be more tech — or, even more specifically, more tech which does less.

What is currently so difficult and even pernicious about our digital lives is how much each piece of tech does. Facebook is the way we connect with friends and family, send messages, read news, organize our social lives, and more. Our smartphones are even more multifunction, becoming everything from a source of dates or takeout food to keeping us in touch and informed.

Splitting out some of these functions into dedicated apps or tech could make life easier — whether outsourcing news or messaging to specific apps or devices, or limiting the intrusion allowed to each outlet. That certainly won't happen spontaneously, and will have to happen through combined anti-trust pressure and increasing social awareness. And the result might be smartphones that do less or mitigate their attention-sapping nature, or apps and services that have limits about what they can do and how often.

It all sounds a bit abstract, but here's an example that already exists: The Apple Watch. Over this past holiday season I was lucky enough to receive one as a gift. My attention span is already limited, so I would have assumed the last thing I needed was another screen. Yet, walking down the street or sitting down at a desk, I can now receive a text message or simple alert without then feeling like I should check Twitter or Instagram or my email. You can technically do those things on the Watch, but not well, and certainly not enjoyably. Surprisingly, having more tech has ended up making me become less tethered to it by actually limiting what I can do. Something similar might be said about using e-readers to catch up on news or a dumbphone for phonecalls.

The path forward for tech is in creating barriers — making tech more purposeful by limiting and shaping what it can do, and demanding more from the massive companies responsible for these profound changes. The other option is to continue to have no boundaries at all — and with that, we risk being washed away in a flood of distraction.

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