Tech Industry Intent, Defectors, and Whistle Blowers

cell phone next to laptop and magazine on table
Peter Lenzini, De Smet Jesuit

Some app engineers and tech industry executives reveal that they design technology with the intent to create addiction.

Speaking to an audience at an Axios event in Philadelphia in 2017, co-founder of Facebook, Sean Parker, stated bluntly that the question for Facebook from the beginning was, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible” (qtd. in Silverman). He would go on to say that the company worked to tap into what he calls the “social validation loop…exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” (qtd. in Silverman).

The past several years have seen scores of tech executives, engineers, and designers leave their jobs to voice their concerns about the industry. While there is debate amongst this group regarding short-term and long-term effects, how and why we got to this place, and what the solutions are, what is clear from the interviews with the myriad defectors like Google’s James Williams and Tristan Harris and Facebook’s Justin Rosenstein and Chammath Palihapitiya, is the motivation behind these companies.

These companies are in a war for consumer attention.

They are recruiting the world’s most talented people to study ways to create addiction. These defectors are shedding light on the myriad psychological techniques employed by tech companies to tap into the dopamine feedback loop. Just one scary example for readers: Instagram withholds “like” notifications from posters to create a sense of concern that posts are not interesting. Artificial Intelligence is used to determine when to deploy the “likes” in order to then generate the dopamine boost that comes with the gratification of knowing that people do indeed still like you. See the below links for more examples.

Perhaps just as telling as the people who are leaving are the actions of the people who are staying.

It is well chronicled that many within the industry are cultivating habits for themselves and for their children to help them avoid the pitfalls of the very technology that they are designing. Bill and Melinda Gates recently lamented that they did not wait longer to let their kids have cell phones—their children did not get cell phones until they were teenagers) (Bowles). Many executives are limiting screen time (especially passive screen time). They are using applications that allow them to limit when their kids can access the WiFi. And perhaps most importantly, they are having the conversations with their kids about the intentions of the designers of these tools.

For more on the tech insider perspective, the intent behind some cell phone and app designs, and the impact of the proliferation of cell phones and technology, please refer to these online articles.

A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley

Facebook’s First President, on Facebook: ‘God Only Knows What It’s Doing to Our Children’s Brains’

Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia

Tristan Harris: Tech Is 'Downgrading Humans.' It's Time to Fight Back

What Is ‘Brain Hacking’? Tech Insiders on Why You Should Care