It’s Our Fault—the Trend of Regret in Tech
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Something unusual began emerging recently from the technology sector—individuals and institutions taking the blame for the negative results of their products. The MIT Media Lab which produced many technological breakthroughs such as Electronic Ink used in the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook to the technologies that power Lego Mindstorms and the Guitar Hero video game. The opening paragraph of the Media Lab’s Fall 2017 project catalog, which lists over 500 research projects currently conducted there, states The Lab’s role in the negative impacts of their technology. “In contributing to the digital revolution, the Media Lab helped fuel a society where increasing numbers of people are obese, sedentary and glued to screens. Our online culture has promoted meaningfulness in terms of online fame and numbers of viewers, and converted time previously spent building face-to-face relationships into interactions online with people who may not be who they say they are.” (MITMediaLab.Projects.Fall2017.pdf) In November 2017 in an interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the former Vice President for User Growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, took responsibility for the negative effects of Facebook on society. “I feel tremendous guilt. […] We created tools that are ripping apart the fabric of how society works. […] The short-term dopamine [author’s note: dopamine is the happy chemical in our brains] driven feedback loops that we created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” (youtube.com) From another sector, activist hedge fund investors Jana Partners in collaboration with the California Teachers’ Retirement System who together control $1 billion in Apple stock pressed Apple in a letter to the management to take the lead in researching the effects of media and technology on children. The Wall Street Journal summarized the message in an article titled, “iPhones and Children Are a Toxic Pair, Say Two Big Apple Investors.” The authors noted that “The investors believe both the content and the amount of time spent on phones need to be tailored to youths, and they are raising concern about the public-health effects of failing to act.”
Historically speaking, every new technology comes with the fear of negative impacts on individuals and society. Some of the effects predicted did not turn out to be true, but others remain under debate. In an engaging article by Vaughan Bell, the author notes the fear expressed by the Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner in the 1500s of the introduction of the printing press, speculating that the access to so much information would be “confusing and harmful” to the mind. (Slate.com). Later, when the radio came into common use in the 1930s, “Observers worried about the propriety and taste of the radio programs that would penetrate the sanctity of the home. Some critics of the radio fad worried that if families stayed home with the wireless it would erode civic involvement and compete with traditional social gatherings.” ("Radio: The Internet of the 1930s"). Although some of the fears of the past may seem quaint or unfounded, research on the effects of social media and smartphone addiction does indicate that these new technologies do need a closer look and that the companies providing these services should be responsible for their effects. In an article in Harvard Business Review, “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel,” the authors, H.B. Shakya and N.A. Christakis noted that previous research demonstrated that social media detracts from interpersonal interactions, increases sedentary behavior and decreases self-esteem. Their work looked at a large group of Facebook users over a two-year period using objective usage data pulled directly from Facebook user accounts. They concluded that higher quantity of Facebook use leads to lower well-being, which comprises a mix of mental and physical health and life satisfaction.
Recently, individuals and groups from the information technology appear to be coming to grips with the real and perceived negative impacts of their hugely successful enterprises. Facebook provides ways for friends and families to stay connected around the globe like never before, but research now shows that social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter also produce harmful side effects. Moreover, the side effects may result from intentional engineering. In the interview with Chamath Palihapitiya at Stanford, he added that “Consumer internet businesses are about exploiting psychology. … We did it at Facebook.” (youtube.com) It appears that the adverse effects of social media usage depend on how much time a person spends on it with more time leading to more harmful effects. For an individual, dialing back social media may be a quick way to get a better sense of wellbeing, but for the corporations that engineered the systems, there may be a day of reckoning in the future.