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September 12th, 2020

Dear tech companies: protect our democracies and mental health!

topic:Technology
type:Campaign, Donation, NGO
by:Yair Oded

The advent of the internet has ushered in an era of progress and global connectedness on an unprecedented scale. Alas, the inexorable rise of tech companies has also engendered a catalog of threats to the stability of our democracies and personal well-being. 

From encroachment on privacy rights and hacking and manipulation of elections to fueling hate speech and genocide, tech platforms have been utilised to undermine the democratic process, empower autocratic regimes, and facilitate egregious violations of human rights. 

All the while, the meteoric rise of social media has exacerbated mental health issues among people across the world, intensifying feelings of isolation and depression and eroding people’s sense of self-worth. 

At the core of this problem lies an economic model that is driven exclusively by profit-making, and views all things as potential commodities - be it trees, animals or humans. Employing this model, tech companies, including social media giants such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, prey on our vulnerabilities, weaken our agency, and utterly distort our perception of ourselves and the world - all with the aim of increasing their revenue. 

Founded by Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, The Center for Humane Technology (CHT) is a non-profit organisation working to transform the tech world and align technology with humans' best interest in order to preserve our democracies, protect our well-being, and tackle broader challenges facing humanity. 

Back in 2013, while working at Google, Harris noticed the nefarious impact of the company’s business model, which is predicated on grabbing people’s attention in order to keep them hooked and ultimately more impressionable by ads. He proceeded to make a presentation titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention”, which went viral within the company and helped raise the issue to the surface. 

As we all know by now, Google is far from being the only tech company mining our attention in order to sustain engagement with their platform and morph their users into living advertisement targets. And so, over the years Harris was joined by other industry veterans and concerned citizens who realised the magnitude of the problem and pressed for systemic solutions. 

CHT was officially founded in 2018, after the 2016 scandal involving Russia intervening in U.S. elections through social media created a momentum of public interest and insight into the hazardous nature of tech companies’ current business model and mode of operation. 

“We envision a world where technology is realigned with humanity’s best interests. Our work expands beyond tech addiction to the broader societal threats that the attention economy poses to our well-being, relationships, democracy, and shared information environment. We must address these threats to conquer our biggest global challenges like pandemics, inequality, and climate change,” CHT states on its website.

CHT works globally to raise awareness of the issue through high-profile presentations to leaders, delivering both public and private testimonies to policymakers, and launching large-scale media and public education campaigns.

The organisation offers specific advice and support to families and educators who wish to establish a more defined structure around tech devices and social media for their children and students, and ward off addiction and mental health issues. 

CHT also works closely with technologists in order to alter the culture within the tech industry through consultation, training, conversations, and events.  

“This attention extraction economy is accelerating the mass degradation of our collective capacity to solve global threats, from pandemics to inequality to climate change,” CHT states. “If we can’t make sense of the world while making ever more consequential choices, a growing ledger of harms will destroy the futures of our children, democracy and truth itself.” 

Please visit CHT's website to read more about the problem at hand and learn about the important work the organisation does. On the website you could also learn about ways to get involved, access toolkits, and make a donation. 

CHT is featured in a new Netflix documentary titled The Social Dilemma, which delves into the core of the attention-grabbing model of tech companies and reviews its grim consequences on our mental health and society at large. Please check out the film and keep the conversation about the issue alive. 

Image: TEDx Brussels 

humanetech.com