‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia
The Google, Apple and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. Paul Lewis reports on the Silicon Valley refuseniks who worry the race for human attention has created a world of perpetual distraction that could ultimately end in disaster
Justin Rosenstein had tweaked his laptops operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook. But even that wasnt enough. In August, the 34-year-old tech executive took a more radical step to restrict his use of social media and other addictive technologies.
Rosenstein purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.
He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook likes, which he describes as bright dings of pseudo-pleasure that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the like button in the first place.
A decade after he stayed up all night coding a prototype of what was then called an awesome button, Rosenstein belongs to a small but growing band of Silicon Valley heretics who complain about the rise of the so-called attention economy: an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy.
These refuseniks are rarely founders or chief executives, who have little incentive to deviate from the mantra that their companies are making the world a better place. Instead, they tend to have worked a rung or two down the corporate ladder: designers, engineers and product managers who, like Rosenstein, several years ago put in place the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves. It is very common, Rosenstein says, for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.
Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.
There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called continuous partial attention, severely limiting peoples ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity even when the device is turned off. Everyone is distracted, Rosenstein says. All of the time.
But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosensteins peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.
Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.
In 2007, Rosenstein was one of a small group of Facebook employees who decided to create a path of least resistance a single click to send little bits of positivity across the platform. Facebooks like feature was, Rosenstein says, wildly successful: engagement soared as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from giving or receiving social affirmation, while Facebook harvested valuable data about the preferences of users that could be sold to advertisers. The idea was soon copied by Twitter, with its heart-shaped likes (previously star-shaped favourites), Instagram, and countless other apps and websites.
It was Rosensteins colleague, Leah Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook like, who announced the feature in a 2009 blogpost. Now 35 and an illustrator, Pearlman confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook likes and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesnt have to.
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