The Great Awakening
How our thinking about technology fundamentally changed in 2017 and where we go from here.
In the past few decades, the year-end tech discussion has focused on the year in gadgets — what the new releases were, and how much faster and better and filled with more bells and whistles they are. But 2017 was different — the discussion zoomed out and became much larger. And 2018 is poised to be the year when our consciousness about our relationship with technology hits a tipping point. And, in turn, that’s going to make 2018 the year of the great reckoning– the year in which we’re forced to decide what we want from technology and what irreducible parts of our humanity we want to safeguard and protect.
2017 was the year we woke up and began to see what the technology we’ve been swimming in has been doing to us. It has undeniably changed the world, and now we finally have enough data to see how it’s changing us. And it’s not always for the better.
The evidence for this awakening is all around us. What began as a trickle at the start of 2017 — with a few lone voices raising the alarm — became a deluge by the end of the year.
Much of the coverage, of course, was fueled by the ongoing revelations about how social media was used to undermine our elections. In September, Facebook reported that Russian operatives using fake accounts had purchased $100,0000 worth of provocative political ads. And a month later Facebook revealed that 126 million people — a number that represents nearly half of the entire U.S. electorate — had been exposed to content by Russian-backed fake accounts during the election.
The effects of social media go way beyond the political consequences. But the Facebook/Russia story was important because it pushed the public to step back and fundamentally reconsider the place of technology in our lives. It was the beginning of a sea change in how we think about technology. For most of the internet’s young life, the assumption of virtue was built in — it was largely taken for granted that the increased access to data and information, and the increased connection to everything and everybody could only be positive.
And in the political sphere, social media was unquestioned as a force for democracy. In 2010 for example, social media was credited with playing a huge role in the Arab Spring. But that idea — that more sophisticated technology necessarily means more social progress — came crashing down in 2017.
“Social media is actively undermining some of the social conditions that have historically made democratic nation states possible,” wrote Gordon Hull, Philosophy Professor at the University of North Carolina. “In its current role, social media risks abetting a social reality where differing groups could disagree not only about what to do, but about what reality is.”
At the same time we were grappling with the effects social media was having on how we govern ourselves collectively, more and more science about what it’s doing to how we control ourselves individually began to surface. The realization wasn’t as abrupt of a wake-up call as it was in the political conversation, but the cultural shift is unmistakable. By last fall, the reality of what our technology is doing to us was so inescapable that acknowledging it became a virtual requirement for tech executives wanting to be taken seriously.
Tech Drops the Triumphalism
In October, a month before the official release of the iPhone X, Tony Fadell, who helped design the original iPhone and iPod, took stock of the last ten years. “I worry what my grandkids are going to think,” he said to Anderson Cooper at the Mindfulness in America Summit. “Will it be ‘He’s the guy that destroyed society?’”
Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, made headlines in early November in an interview with Mike Allen in Axios when he talked about how his own thoughts had evolved since his early boosterism of social media. “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them,” he said, “was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
Later, in November, Evan Spiegel, the co-founder and CEO of Snap, weighed in. “The personalized newsfeed revolutionized the way people share and consume content,” he wrote in Axios. “But let’s be honest: this came at a huge cost to facts, our minds and the entire media industry.” He also acknowledged the fundamental paradox of social media: “This is a challenging problem to solve because the obvious benefits that have driven the growth of social media — more friends! more likes! more free content! — are also the things that will undermine it in the long run.” He concluded by distancing Snap from social media altogether. “With the upcoming redesign of Snapchat, we are separating the social from the media,” he wrote.
Some of this public soul-searching might well be just good leadership in meeting the public (and the market) where it is in an industry that’s always prided itself as forward-looking and science driven. But the rethinking also includes the rank and file of those who work in Silicon Valley. In November the Guardian ran a piece headlined, “Ashamed to work in Silicon Valley: how techies became the new bankers.” Workers who once proudly proclaimed their company affiliations now find themselves more circumspect. “I would never say I worked at Facebook,” said a 30-year-old engineer who had recently quit. “There’s this song and dance you learn to play because people are quick to judge.”
In October Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton wrote about the regret of some early Facebook employees. “Most of the early employees I know are totally overwhelmed by what this thing has become,” one early ex-Facebook employee told Bilton. The same person also expressed reservations about the company’s role in the election: “I lay awake at night thinking about all the things we built in the early days and what we could have done to avoid the product being used this way.”
Another piece in The Guardian, by Paul Lewis, detailed the way this new skepticism is playing out in how tech employees use their own products. He described one 34 year-old executive, part of what he called “a small but growing band of Silicon Valley heretics,” who had his assistant set up parental controls on his new iPhone to block him from downloading apps. He was particularly wary of the temptations of Facebook “likes.” And he had reason to know. He was, Lewis notes, “the Facebook engineer who created the ‘like’ button in the first place.”
In revisiting the subject a month later, Bilton wrote that his “inbox was flooded” with messages from current and former tech employees who were feeling the same way. “The people who reached out ranged in pay grade from engineers to C-suite executives,” wrote Bilton. “Some venture capitalists who once funded the companies, or their competitors, have told me that they no longer use them — or do so sparingly.”
He also noted that “countless journalists” — including himself — have deleted the apps from their phones. “I now log onto Facebook once a month, if that,” he wrote.
The re-examination also touched the author of Twitter for Good. “Everything about the last year has made me stop and think about that book title, and how it would be received now,” said Claire Diaz-Ortiz, an early Twitter employee. “In 2017, those of us embedded in the world of social feel the need to defend the medium. Meanwhile, a small blue bird is chattering away on our shoulders, asking, ‘Is this Twitter for bad?’”
And Chamath Palihapitiya, an ex-Facebook executive who’s now a venture capitalist, said it’s been “gut wrenching” to see social media tools being used to divide people. “I feel tremendous guilt,” he said. “In the back, deep, deep recesses of our mind, we kind of knew something bad could happen.” By October, only 21 percent of respondents said they trusted Facebook with their personal data.
As the year came to a close, there was the growing awareness that we’re in a time of major transition. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the sun is setting on the golden age of Silicon Valley,” said Bill Maris, founder of Alphabet’s venture-capital fund who now runs venture fund Section 32. Or, as Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian internet activist and social entrepreneur put it, “We are moving from the age of denial into the age of realization.” But, Ghonim warned, “It’s not full realization yet.”
Coming Face to Face with the Truth and Consequences of our Tech Addiction
And part of what is keeping us from full realization about the impact of technology on our humanity is that we’re too busy with our heads down using that technology. The numbers are staggering:
• By June, Facebook had 2 billion users. And Americans alone spent 56 billion minutes on the site each month.
• YouTube’s 1.5 billion logged-in users average more than an hour a day on YouTube on mobile alone.
• Every minute 300 million hours of video are uploaded and each day 5 billion videos are watched.
• By September, Instagram had 800 million users, up 100 million since April.
• There are now 2.6 billion smartphone users worldwide — a number expected to climb to 6.1 billion by 2020.
• The top ten users of smartphones touch their phones an average of 5,427 times each day. The rest of us clock in at 2,617 touches per day.
• Between midnight and 5 a.m. 87 percent of participants in a study checked their phones at least once.
• Over 70 percent of Americans sleep next to or with their phone.
And all that time spent in the presence of such powerful devices is having a profound effect on us. Our phones are with us almost all the time, and in most of our social interactions, yet we know there’s something wrong with that. In a Pew study, 89 percent of phone owners said they’d used their phones in their last social gathering, but 82 percent felt that when they did this it damaged the interaction.
And it’s also affecting our relationships. In a study of people in romantic relationships, 70 percent said that cell phones interfered with their interactions with their partners.
What Our Technology is Doing to Our Children
Our addiction to our phones is also eating away at the fabric of our family lives. According to one survey, 98 percent of parents said that unplugging from devices during meals is important to maintaining their family bond, and yet 42 percent couldn’t even remember the last time their family had eaten a meal with no devices present.
And it’s especially dangerous for our children. Now that the smartphone age is a decade old, researchers have enough data to see some trends and patterns emerging. And what they’re seeing is deeply troubling. Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who studies generational differences. Around five years ago she began to see abrupt changes in the data around the behavior and emotional states of teens — the generation just after Millennials. “The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs,” she writes. “In all my analyses of generational data — some reaching back to the 1930s — I had never seen anything like it.”
In searching for what could have caused such abrupt swings in the rates of conditions like depression and loneliness, she arrived at one answer: the smartphone. This was the period in which smartphone usage went over 50 percent. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives,” writes Twenge, “from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”
Twenge dubbed this new generation iGen — those who grew up with social media and have no memories of the pre-internet world. She notes that some of the changes are positive — because members of iGen are less likely to get in a car, they’re safer from accidents. Because they spend more time at home, they don’t drink as much alcohol. But other trends are much darker. “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy,” she writes. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”
Teen depression and suicide rates have soared since 2011, the first year that the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate. And researchers have found there’s a connection to the phone, with teens who spend three or more hours a day on devices having a 35 percent greater risk of suicide. “There’s not a single exception,” writes Twenge. “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”
Some of this could be because of the opportunity cost of screen time — time spent with devices means time not spent socializing with friends, which we know makes us happy. As Twenge writes, the devices are changing the nature of what it means to be an adolescent. For instance, with Boomers and Gen Xers, 85 percent went out on dates. For iGen, only 56 percent do. High school seniors in 2015 actually go out less often than 8th graders did in 2009. From 2000 to 2015, the number of teenagers who spent time with their friends almost every day plummeted by over 40 percent.
And it’s not like all this lost time is being repurposed for homework. Teens spend less time studying than their Gen X counterparts did in the early 90s. “So what are they doing with all that time?” writes Twenge. “They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.”
The stakes go beyond just redefining adolescence. As Twenge notes, those who have one instance of depression are much more likely to suffer from it again at some point in life. And much of what’s going on in adolescence is training for being a resilient, independent, capable adult. Our devices have thrown a monkey wrench into that process. We don’t yet know how iGen will be different as adults, but they’re certainly different — much less resilient and much more unhappy — as teens.
“Even a Silent Phone Disconnects Us”
The devices are having powerful negative effects even on those of us who are not smartphone natives. Yes, we know they distract us and tempt us to multitask, which we know doesn’t work. But there’s some fascinating research, detailed by Nicholas Carr, looking at the more subtle effects even having our phones nearby has on us. One study had participants do a puzzle and then had their phones ring, which they were unable to answer. The result: “Heart rate and blood pressure increased, self-reported feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness increased, and self-reported extended self and cognition decreased.” Another found that when participants were doing a task and received phone notifications, which they didn’t answer, their performance was “significantly disrupted.” What’s more, the level of disruption was essentially the same as it would have been if the participants had actually answered their phones.
One of my favorites is a study that had three groups of people try to solve a problem. One group had their phones on their desks. Another placed their phones in their pockets or purses. The third put theirs in a separate room. The results directly tracked the presence of the phone — those with their phones in a different room did the best, those with the phones on their desk did the worst, and the pocket/purse group was in the middle. The authors call this “smart-phone induced brain drain.”
And it’s not just about what it does to our ability to focus, the presence of phones also compromises our connections with others. A study by researchers from Virginia Tech looked at conversations among 100 pairs of people, some of whom had a phone on the table while others didn’t. The authors found that the mere presence of an untouched phone degraded the quality of the conversation and lowered the levels of empathy the participants felt toward one another. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle put in her book Reclaiming Conversation, “even a silent phone disconnects us.”
So, in other words, even though we think we’re choosing the topics and the depth of conversation we’re having with others, if there’s a phone present, we’re not as in control as we think we are. Our subconscious sees the phone as this gateway to everyone and everything in the world that might buzz or vibrate or ring at any second. And so, without even quite realizing it, we keep the topics quick and light, so as not to be in too deep or too long of a conversational zone when the inevitable interruption occurs. It’s like a reverse home alarm — instead of protecting our space, the blinking object invades it.
Mining Our Attention is the Business Model
Tristan Harris is a former Google design ethicist who founded the group Time Well Spent to raise awareness about how, as the site puts it, “our society is being hijacked by technology.” As Harris points out, our addiction to our devices is by design. In the attention economy behind those friendly, inviting icons we love so much is an incredible amount of increasingly sophisticated science. “The best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works,” says Harris. The behavioral scientists, neuroscientists and computer scientists on the other side of our screens know we like the feeling of control. But they also want us to cede control of our attention. And so we’re given the illusion of control. “By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones,” writes Harris. “But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.”
Spinochordodes tellinii is a hairworm parasite that infects grasshoppers. The larvae enter the grasshoppers when they drink contaminated water. The parasite grows inside the grasshopper, and when it’s ready to go back to the water, it takes over the brain of the grasshoppers, making the grasshoppers think that what they want to do is jump in the water. Which they do. But grasshoppers can’t swim, so they drown. And then the parasite leaves the dead host and it all starts over again. From the outside, it might look like that’s what the grasshopper was choosing to do.
You can see where this is going. “Technology is not neutral,” says Harris. It has one objective: to capture our attention. “And it becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem of who can go lower to get it,” says Harris
Technology is great at giving us what we think we want, but not necessarily at giving us what we need. In the attention economy, since our attention is monetizable, all the incentives are toward consuming more and more of it. And the sophistication of the techniques used to mine it is exponentially outpacing our ability to protect it.
We have an innate need for social approval. And now we’ve outsourced that, or a semblance of it, to third parties. As research shows, certain ways in which we get that approval are bad for us. A study from September 2017 by researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia found that, “believing that your peers have more pals than you do — even if demonstrably false — can be harmful to your health.” And, of course, social media makes it more likely that people compare their lives unfavorably to their friends’, including underestimating the negative aspects of others’ lives, and overestimating the positive ones.
2017 was the year in which this largely hidden process came out in the open.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
So where do we go from here? The answer is using this moment to transition into an age of human-centered technology. Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of The Attention Merchants. “When the commodity in question is access to people’s minds, the perpetual quest for growth ensures that forms of backlash, both major and minor, are all but inevitable,” he wrote. He calls this backlash the “disenchantment effect,” and writes that when it happens “the reaction can be severe and long-lasting enough to have serious commercial consequences and require a significant reinvention of approach.”
2018 is the year when the signs of the disenchantment effect become ubiquitous and the hunger for a new way to live and to engage with technology will very likely hit a critical mass.
In the political sphere, momentum is growing to pressure tech companies to act. “You are going to have to do something about this or else we will,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein in October 2017. And last week, Roger McNamee, cofounder of Elevation Partners and an early Facebook investor and advisor who’s working with Tristan Harris, proposed eight regulatory fixes. They included more transparency around both algorithms and the sources of political advertising, allowing consumers to own their own data, and not allowing the big platforms to make any further acquisitions “until they have addressed the damage caused to date, taken steps to prevent harm in the future, and demonstrated that such acquisitions will not result in diminished competition.”
And in academia, Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and author of the book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, is calling for a new academic discipline focused on “algorithmic accountability”. She’s asking for universities to step up. To do their jobs, lawmakers need these powerful tools explained to them, but “academics have been asleep at the wheel,” she wrote, “leaving the responsibility for this education to well-paid lobbyists and employees who’ve abandoned the academy.”
On the corporate front, the ethics of the attention economy are becoming part of the business discussion. Last week, two major Apple shareholders, Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, sent an open letter to Apple asking the company to exercise more corporate responsibility around how its products are used, particularly by children and teens. “Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” the investors wrote. “There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility.”
And among the public, there are signs that people want to consume media that doesn’t consume them. David Sax wrote in the New York Times about the rising popularity of all things analog. Sales of real print books — those heavy square things that only have one book between the covers and don’t even have a backlight — are up for the third straight year. Also up are sales of vinyl records, paper notebooks and instant-film cameras. “In a world of endless email chains, group chats, pop-up messages or endlessly tweaked documents and images,” writes Sax, “the walled garden of analog saves both time and inspires creativity.”
And the way it does that is by creating space, by quieting the noise, by giving us not just uninterrupted time but, just as important, the certainty of uninterrupted time, when our minds aren’t constantly attuned to a knock at the door.
But it’s not just about going back to analog. The scale of the problem with the oncoming tide of AI, and augmented reality is too big. What we need is smarter, better and more human technology. And I think 2018 will show that this is the next frontier in technology — apps and tools and AI that help us set boundaries, create that space and rebuild the walls around our essential humanity. It might seem like a paradox, but it’s not unlike noise-cancelling technology — only with a much wider definition of noise.
At Thrive, that’s what our mission is with our just released THRIVE App. It helps you recalibrate your relationship with technology by giving you the tools to take a break from your phone to do whatever it is that makes you more human. When you put your phone into “Thrive Mode,” it stops all notifications, calls and texts except for those from people you’ve specified.
At home with the children, it will allow you to spend time with them and be fully present. At events, you’ll be allowed to truly experience the moment, instead of simply memorializing an experience you never quite had. Or, if you just want to get some focused work done, it will allow you to create the time and space to do it.
And the goal is to help us create new norms about how we use technology — to go from valuing always being on to also valuing unplugging and recharging. It’s about making people realize what they’re really missing out on when they give in to the conventional notion of FOMO.
As the iPhone turns 10, it would be fascinating to hear its creator on our current moment. “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,” Steve Jobs once said. “But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” That was back in 1997, a full decade before the iPhone was even born. And in December, at a conference in China Tim Cook said that “We all have to work to infuse technology with humanity, with our values.”
And that’s what needs to happen in 2018. The stakes are huge. To solve our collective problems we need all the individual creativity, wisdom and intuition we can muster. And to access that, we need to create time and space for what makes us uniquely human. We need to be in control of our technology. And the “disenchantment effect” that hit a tipping point in 2017 is going to transform into a demand to put humanity at the center of our technology. As Samsung CMO Marc Mathieu put it at the Samsung Global Developer Conference where we unveiled our Thrive App, “turning off the lights at night to get a good night’s sleep doesn’t make you anti-electricity, and occasionally turning off our phones to connect with ourselves and our loved ones or to do focused work without distractions doesn’t make you anti-technology.”
In late November, a glitch in American Airlines’ scheduling system mistakenly scheduled 15,000 flights without pilots for the holiday season — technology flying off with no humans at the controls. The company quickly scrambled to reinsert actual humans into the cockpits of each flight. It’s the perfect metaphor for our time. And nothing less than our lives is at stake. Let’s hope we’re at a very different point in this essential conversation at the start of 2019.