Time Well Spent – Why Everyone Should Take Responsibility
It all started in 2015, when Tristan Harris was a “product philosopher” at Google. Already he is worried that certain applications are stealing his time, and apostrophe app designers, in his guilty eyes make us addicted. Quickly Tristan Harris regains his freedom and creates Timewellspent. He becomes the ambassador of a global cause: to fight against these technological platforms which “hijack” the mind (these are his words) of more than two billion people. Of TED at 60 minutes, it is soon everywhere. His idea gradually gained ground, especially among players in Silicon Valley who had once dabbled with Facebook. Other players in Silicon Valley resume his speech. Sean Parker or Chamath Palihapitiya are particularly critical of Facebook, pointing to its deleterious effects on society as a whole and children in particular.
It is quite logically that this concert of criticism was structured, to give birth to the Center for Humane Technology (CHT). Launched yesterday, it counts among its members Tristan Harris, but also familiar names like Dave Morin or Justin Rosenstein (Asana). Its objective is simple: to make civil society aware of the addictive effects of certain applications, and to challenge the designers of these applications by getting them to revise their design. The first shock action of the CHT consists in diffusing, with the active support of Common Sense Media, a video awareness campaign aimed at 55,000 public schools. At the same time, the CHT is preparing a site for application editors, to challenge them on the impact of their technologies in terms of public health and thus lead them to better anticipate their undesirable effects.
How did we get here ?
But are these effects really undesirable? Obviously not, since the very objective of these applications is to maximize the time of use. From this perspective, all means are good. But not for everyone, and certainly not for users. Last September, an article published in The Atlantic caused a sensation by describing the ravages of mobile over an entire generation : increasing isolation, depression and rising suicide rate. The finding is overwhelming. Especially since we know these effects and experience them ourselves every day. We know the problem, without addressing it, neither for us nor for our children. However, everything indicates that there is an urgent need to act.
The end of impunity
Any superhero knows that with great power comes great responsibility. The Facebook, Apple or even Google have recently been reminded.
Apple announces record results? Never mind, of shareholders call on Tim Cook to take responsibility to contain and if possible alleviate the growing addiction of adolescents to iPhone. The same Tim Cook, a few days before, confessed to forbid his nephew to go on social networks… But let’s move on.
YouTube is not immune to criticism either, this time with a strong opponent: Stacy Burn, mother of 3, who testifies to deep Indiana’s ravages of YouTube on son : “Mommy the monster scares me!” “. The bottom line is not that a mother leaves her 3-year-old alone in front of YouTube, but that the Stacy Burns are the targets of the advertisers who keep YouTube alive. The whole YouTube model is being called into question. Suddenly, we rediscover its twisted algorithms, and its morbid quirks. Under the glitter, YouTube worries.
For Facebook, Apple, Google and others, it’s game over. Everyone is called upon to take responsibility. Apple shareholders are clear: if a company creates negative externalities, she cannot outsource her responsibilities.
Take his responsibilities
If the action of Center for Humane Technology is beneficial, it is because it brings all the stakeholders to take their responsibilities by positioning themselves on the subject of addictions to applications and mobile.
Digital players have worked for so long to disseminate applications and increase their use with huge sums of money. It is up to them to campaign at the same time for better use, to help users to demonstrate measure and discernment, by supporting associations for example, and by supporting educational programs aimed at civil society.
Politicians need to move out of their contradictory position of either embracing or banning technology. Banning the telephone in schools only circumvents the problem and does not answer it in substance. The government would be well advised to look across the Atlantic at the laws that are being prepared, in particular to measure the impact of new technologies on children. We do not eliminate a problem by ignoring it: we evaluate its impact, on the application side we set rules to frame interactions, while promoting on the user side certain more parsimonious and thoughtful uses. François Hollande boasted of digitizing schools by putting tablets in the hands of all children. It is urgent now to help to use it well.
Even before politicians take hold of the issue, civil society must tackle the subject head-on: associations, schools and of course parents to identify and implement the necessary actions to reduce the negative impact social apps can have on children and adolescents. Common Sense Media is doing an exceptional job in the United States to provide everyone with simple and concrete tools that go in this direction. It is time for France to take inspiration from it and take action.
Mark Zuckerberg knows when the tide is turning. It is no coincidence that he places Timewellspent at the heart of its 2018 resolutions. Facebook is 14, twice the age of reason. The time has come for him to grow, and not just to put on weight. It’s a huge challenge for him and the other giants. It is also a challenge for us, who must promote and support this change. We owe it to ourselves and even more so to our children.
Matthieu Chéreau edits Nouvelles Frontiéres, a letter that explores how we can prepare our children today for tomorrow.