#1: Introduction

Hello everyone, and welcome to my first blog post.

The year 2020 was marked by a previously overlooked social issue coming into the spotlight, primarily in the US but also in the rest of the world: how should we, as a society, make use of technology in an ethical way? On the 9th of September, Netflix released a new documentary: The Social Dilemma. Compelling, dramatic and on-point, the film featured dozens of interviews of Big Tech ex-employees, academics, activists and various experts, who all sounded the alarm on the same problem: the way social media is changing society is benefitting the few, not the many.

While these concerns had been around for several years, they hadn’t really gained that much public attention. Tristan Harris had been working on these issues since 2013, when he started his own movement, Time Well Spent, which in 2018 became the non-profit organisation Center for Humane Technology, co-founded by himself, Aza Raskin and Randima Fernando. However, it was really The Social Dilemma that made discussing the dangers of digital technology a mainstream conversation: the film gathered 38 million viewers in its first four weeks, and has now reached an estimated 100 million people in 190 countries and 30 languages, while being mentioned over 1700 times in the press.

For me, as for many other people, the film served as a compact yet gripping summary of the various problems and ethical issues that burden digital technology nowadays. From there, I discovered more related content, mostly by looking up the people who were interviewed in the film. Perhaps most importantly, I found out about the podcast Your Undivided Attention, and the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which is easily one of the most important books of this century, given that everything that matters most in society is being engulfed in the digital world, where it isn’t so clear how power is acquired and where it truly resides.

It’s hard to say exactly what it is that struck me so powerfully about all this, but perhaps one important aspect of it is that it astonished me on one hand how urgent these problems are, and on the other how an enormous majority of us would agree to simple but effective solutions, and yet barely anything is being done. The most advanced laws in the world regarding online rights, those of the European Union, barely scratch the surface of most of these problems.

Thankfully, there are some reasons to be hopeful. Although things are still moving slowly, it seems that there is a growing societal concern for these problems. For me, Tristan Harris, who has dedicated most of his career to studying and understanding digital technology’s ethical issues in order to better confront them, is an enormous source of inspiration. His concept of ‘humane technology’, for me, describes rather well the ideal of anyone who seeks to solve digital technology’s core problems and make the digital world a humane and just place. If we are to solve the problems of online addiction, misinformation, cognitive downgrading, behaviour modification, systematic amplification of narcissism and polarization, and so on, it’s hard to imagine how we can do that without making technology more humane.

Of course, the term doesn’t perfectly describe what my specific interest is, exactly. If I only said “I support humane technology”, I wouldn’t really be saying everything about what my aims are. The term also does not perfectly define what the problem with digital technology is all about. It’s quite hard to put your finger on what the problem is, as was cleverly illustrated in the beginning of The Social Dilemma, with Harris saying “There’s a problem happening in the tech industry, and it doesn’t have a name, and it has to do with one source, one…”

Some people may tell themselves that screens are the problem. For others, it may be mobile phones. Experts like Jaron Lanier and Shoshana Zuboff go further to pinpoint the origin of it all. For Lanier, it’s not about screens or phones: he made up his own acronym to name the problem: BUMMER – Behaviour of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. Shoshana Zuboff also coined a new term: ‘surveillance capitalism’. While the latter is much more academic and grounded in solid economic and historical knowledge, the concept in itself is not that far from Lanier’s idea of what went wrong with digital technology. The approaches of Harris, Zuboff and Lanier are very different, and yet, for me, their conceptions of technology are not in contradiction; rather, they complement each other very well. Harris’ term, perhaps because it seems more simple and accessible, and is becoming associated with a global movement that demands systemic change, is the one I rule most adequate to associate to my work, and the one I choose for my blog’s name.

Now, why am I starting a blog?

Humane technology, as a global movement, is gaining momentum, but still seems very fresh, and there seem to be very few reference points out there, besides experts and NGOs. The activity still seems mostly limited to books, conferences, and so on. You may find some articles here and there on the internet, but I don’t really know of any blogs properly dedicated to the topic. I also don’t know of anywhere on the web that tries to link the various aspects of the movement: people like Tristan Harris, Shoshana Zuboff, Jaron Lanier and others, who don’t really work together (besides in The Social Dilemma, perhaps), all together in one place. While the Center for Humane Technology does compile different efforts, work and research, it’s all mostly done by the same people; there is no larger network.

What I feel is missing is some sort of mini-encyclopedia, an overview of all the different parts out there that are united in reimagining technology in a more humane way. The latter can be thought of as a particular mindset: everything I talk about is linked to that mindset, and my website aims to offer a view of the world in that mindset. I can’t find the mini-encyclopedia, so I’m making it myself. And my blog posts will discuss various things in a ‘humane-tech-way’, so to speak. Mainstream media, of course, does often discuss digital technology’s modern problems, but usually does so by speaking of them in terms of old problems, and by doing so misses precisely what is new about the current problems. I want to offer an alternative point of view, one that doesn’t take for granted the core assumptions and design of technology.

Published by Emile Johnston

I write about humane technology

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