At his company’s recent F8 conference in San Jose, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had a message for developers: Keep building.
On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai will take the stage at the search giant’s I/O event, where he’ll probably make similar exhortations.
But amid the calls for more apps and gadgets, a group of tech insiders — some of whom worked closely with Facebook and Google’s top brass — are preaching a different Silicon Valley gospel: Slow down and think about what you’re doing.
The Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit organization formed this year by engineers and investors who profited from the past decade’s social and mobile boom, is having a moment, as concerns over the reach, power and influence of tech grow.
The problems, they say, go beyond headlines about data leaks, password breaches and election interference. Tech giants like Facebook and Google have gained sway over billions of people through subtle Pavlovian techniques that keep them coming back for more.
The examples stare at you from your smartphone’s home screen:
•The red badge on Facebook’s app that signals a posted comment or message.
•YouTube and Netflix videos that automatically cue up to play one after the other.
•The Snapchat orange fireball emoji that signals a streak of daily chats between friends.
Tristan Harris, the center’s co-founder and executive director and a former Google designer, wants people to realize those attention-grabbing techniques are intentionally designed to “hijack our minds and our society.”
“Technology is supposed to be a tool; it is supposed to give you superpowers,” he said. “That’s not what we’re doing right now. We are handing over our values to a nonhuman entity that does not have our interests in mind.”
The organization isn’t suggesting that people delete their Facebook accounts and chuck their smartphones and laptops into the bay. Nor is it suggesting that Facebook or Google shed hundreds of billions of dollars in market value and turn into nonprofits.
“We’re not attacking anybody. The center is entirely about trying to make all of these products we love more humane,” said Roger McNamee, a founding adviser who as a venture capitalist made profitable investments in Facebook, Palm and Yelp.
“The goal is to bring together policymakers and medical professionals and technologists to talk about the dark side of social media and other apps that are on smartphones,” he said.
The center hopes to educate consumers and persuade tech executives to change business practices that don’t help people, said Chris Hughes, one of Zuckerberg’s original dorm-room co-founders. Hughes joined the center as an adviser last month.
Facebook’s recent controversies over election manipulation, hate speech and the Cambridge Analytica data leak are helping to focus more attention on the center’s messages.
“It’s time for a deeper, broader conversation about the data, who owns it, who gets paid for it,” Hughes said. “We have to challenge the leaders of these companies and leaders of societies to make sure these technologies are working for us.”
Hughes is the latest high-profile tech luminary to join the center’s leadership team, which has deep roots in Silicon Valley, starting with Harris, a former Apple software engineer who was a Google design ethicist and product philosopher. He left in 2014 to start a movement called Time Well Spent, using public venues like the TED conference and “60 Minutes” to make people more aware of how technology is used to steer behavior.
Companies like Facebook and Google offer their services for free. That means they depend on increasing time spent on their apps and websites to increase advertising revenue or to mine information about users’ habits and preferences. Behavior-changing technology became crucial as they competed with each other for the attention of users, Harris said in a recent interview with The Chronicle.
So, for example, seeing a red notification badge on Facebook has conditioned people to stop what they are doing, open the app and gain instant gratification by checking their feeds. Videos that play automatically encourage binge watching, which keeps viewers on YouTube or Netflix longer.
And Snapchat’s streak emoji encourages friends to launch the app at least once a day, which takes over as “the way you know that you are still friends,” Harris said.
Google and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment about the center. A Facebook representative cited a December post by two Facebook researchers who said the company has pledged $1 million for research into how media technologies affect well-being of youth. The post said Facebook is also investing in research “to better understand digital distraction and the factors that can pull people away from important face-to-face interactions.”
To be sure, ad-supported television, radio and newspapers also compete in what Hughes called the “attention economy.” But the rise of smartphones and social media has intensified the battle.
Tech addiction explains why people feel lost without their smartphones. A survey released in November by Deloitte found that the average American looks at a smartphone 47 times per day. Those ages 18 to 24 look at their phones 86 times per day, the survey said.
“It’s the first thing that we look at when we wake up, the last thing we look at before we go to sleep,” said Aza Raskin, center co-founder and former head of user experience for Firefox browser creator Mozilla. He also founded Internet radio startup Songza, which Google bought in 2014.
“This is like a middleman that sits between us and all of our friends,” said Raskin, whose father, the late Jef Raskin, was an Apple project manager credited as the father of the Macintosh. “So it controls our social interactions. We think we are in control because we are scrolling down the News Feed, but Facebook is the one deciding whose update we see, who we stay in close contact with.”
Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, applauded the center’s efforts, but noted that mental health experts like himself have been warning for years that technology is rewiring our brains.
“The message from the research community has been loud and clear all this time, which is that these technologies are wonderful in many ways, but they come with risks,” said Aboujaoude, author of “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality,” based on his experience treating patients for Internet addiction.
Aboujaoude said he doesn’t think the center alone is going to “make a huge difference. This is a global phenomenon, and it’s going to take folks from different backgrounds coming together to have an impact.”
And such a movement might have been more effective five or six years ago, he said. “The big question is, is it too late? I hope not. We have become so dependent on these technologies. We allowed them to basically take over our lives.”
While short on specifics, the center’s website lists four broad ways it plans to redefine technology’s future:
•Inspiring companies like Apple, Samsung and Microsoft to design device screens that minimize constant distractions.
•Lobbying government agencies to pressure tech companies to better protect consumers.
•Creating a “cultural awakening” so people recognize the “difference between technology designed to extract the most attention from us, and technology whose goals are aligned with our own.”
•Engaging engineers and other employees to lobby against a system “that ruins society.”
Hughes, whose net worth Forbes recently estimated at $430 million, largely thanks to his Facebook stake, acknowledges he has profited from the company’s success. “I do feel some responsibility for what Facebook has become,” he said. But, he added, “everyone who has worked for these companies has a particular responsibility to think about how they should be forces for good and not be forces that are destructive.”
The center has raised an undisclosed amount of money from individuals, trust funds and foundations, while some of its own leaders and advisers have also contributed, said center public relations director Lynn Fox, who during her career has been a spokeswoman for Apple and Google.
It operates from the office of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that advises parents and teachers about video games and other media that are appropriate for children. Both groups partnered in a Truth About Tech campaign to raise awareness of digital addiction.
The center is pushing its agenda at a time when Facebook’s privacy and data problems are causing people to re-examine their reliance on tech, said Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer.
“What it’s ultimately going to lead to is a much more healthier, balanced approach to technology,” Steyer said.
And there are signs the center’s mantra might be getting through. Zuckerberg, who previously wrote that his company would focus this year on ensuring time spent on Facebook “is time well spent,” told Wall Street analysts on April 25, in a call to discuss the company’s record $12 billion in quarterly revenue, that he had a three-year plan to “keep building Facebook to not only be a service that people love to use, but also one that’s good for people and good for society.”