Former Google and Facebook Engineers Form Center for Humane Technology
The success of Google and Facebook was built on demanding the attention and perhaps even the souls of those who become addicted to the platforms. A coalition of former employees from both has formed a new group to drive the development of healthier products.
Both Google and Facebook have succeeded in the marketplace at the unfortunate cost of online addiction and manipulation by the two companies involved.
Even if the intent may have been benign when both started, both companies’ offerings have evolved well beyond Google’s own original mantra of “do no evil” to guide their work. As Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, said about the development of social media that he was involved with, “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because of the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or two billion people and it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other.” He also sadly added, “God knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” And during a recent public talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook who worked there from 2005 to 2011, said, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” at Apple, several major investors weighed in late last year to ask the tech giant to do something to make its iphones less addictive. They, too, recognized that the problem is with the way the devices are designed to hook you in, without regard to the damage they may be causing.
A paper entitled “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel,” written by Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis and published in Harvard Business Review in April 2017, laid part of the problem with the platform out in significant detail. With the average Facebook user reportedly spending about an hour a day on the
platform, the potential impact of the interactions there on people can be significant. The authors’ conclusions, based on an extensive research effort, include that “Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being” and that “most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year.” That’s just for adults, but Facebook has designs on children even below its original suggested minimum user age of 13.
In December 2017, Facebook introduced Messenger Kids, a messaging app designed just for children and quite deliberately also to bring youth into Facebook’s network at younger ages. Children as young as six can use it if they can do some simple texts and send emojis and selfies. The problem is that at that age a child is only just beginning to understand writing, cannot always separate reality from something made up and has no understanding of the importance of privacy.
Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, an advocacy group that has fought in the past to eliminate fast food ads from the Pokémon Go app and to remove Mcdonald’s advertising on report card envelopes in Florida, strongly urged Facebook to recall the Messenger Kids app. As its letter said, “Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts. A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development.”
Another concern raised by many involves how easily the Russians, charged by FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller, were able to use Facebook to manipulate information for its users. Of equal concern is how the U.S. government uses Facebook to push its own agenda. Beyond that, of course, is how Facebook and Google both have self-referential algorithms that tend to return content similar to what one has read before. Without alternative opinions offered, that content can reinforce past opinions and foster delusion rather than stimulate critical thinking. Even worse, it can – and clearly has – dig even deeper into the liberalconservative divide that is ripping the United States apart.
All of this is behind why several former employees of both Facebook and Google have agreed to form the Center for Humane Technology (humanetech.com). Four of the founders of the center are from Facebook, two are from Google and one is a technologist. The new organization will be dedicated to understanding and finding ways to do something about the ill effects of what the tech companies have created.
As Tristan Harris, a former ethicist at Google who is leading the center, said in an interview with The New York Times, “The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies – Google and Facebook – and where are we pointing them? We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.” as a measure of the center’s seriousness in its mission, among the various acts it intends to carry out shortly are the following:
• Launch an advertising campaign in 55,000 public schools across the United States with the goal of educating parents and students about the impacts of social media addiction
• Lobby for the passage of a bill being introduced in Congress by Senator Ed Markey (D-massachusetts) to fund in-depth research on the impact of technology on children’s health
• Lobby for the passage of a state bill in California aimed at controlling what digital bots are allowed to do within social media platforms
• The center is also creating a website to be called “The Ledger of Harms” that will feature research about the harmful effects of technology and information to guide engineers to create healthier platforms and products.
In a statement Harris released about the center on February 5, he said that companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have “created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids.” He went on to remind us that “technologists, engineers and designers have the power and responsibility to hold themselves accountable and build products that create a better world. Plenty of smart engineers and designers in the industry want to create apps that provide us with the information we need to improve our lives as quickly as possible, instead of just sucking us in for as long as possible.”
Parents would be wise to take heed and keep their kids away from potentially harmful social media for as long as possible.
system. And for the first time, matching federal funds will be available for programs that support keeping those families together.
A further advantage of the new law is that it was intentionally designed to do everything possible to avoid the use of group homes. It does so by explicitly limiting federal funding for what is referred to as congregate care.
With the new law, caseworkers will also have a number of new options. Besides various kinds of treatment – including treatment for substance abuse if needed – there will be specific counseling programs tailored to finding ways to stabilize families and keep them engaged. The law also makes it easier for a child to live for a while with grandparents, uncles or aunts as part of the process. It does so by allowing that if a stay with these close relatives does not work out, even if the relatives have incomes that would have made the child ineligible for further care, the child can still be “sent back” to their original family without losing the benefits they were eligible for in the first place.
The law went forward despite intense opposition from the group-home community throughout the United States. In 2016, Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican chair of the Finance Committee, and Senator Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat, tried to pass a nearly identical bill in Congress. It failed that time after a major Baptist group-home network in North Carolina strong-armed its Senate delegation to vote against the bill.
Hatch and Wyden joined forces again on the current bill, but this time they had strong support to deal with opposition yet again from Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina and other group-home providers. Those group-home providers complained out of greed for what they were going to lose as a result of the new plan: money for the children placed in their care. They also successfully maneuvered around the federal child welfare solutions already in place in New York and California, where state representatives were concerned the new plan might undermine the ones they had already put in place on their own.
From a numbers perspective, the law was passed just in time. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 397,000 children in foster care in 2012 grew to 428,000 by 2015. Much of that growth was connected to the nationwide opioid epidemic. With the new funding provided to deal with substance abuse counseling and medical support, it is hoped that the law will help a much larger number of children stay out of that particular trap.
The new law also comes shortly after an October Finance Committee investigation of one of the largest for-profit providers of foster care services was released. That report showed that children that provider was responsible for had been dying at high rates over the previous 10 years with little investigation as to why. After the committee’s investigation, although the company involved tried to argue that the kids it took in were the problem and not the foster homes themselves, it was determined that the death rate among children in its foster homes was 42% higher than the national average.
Under the new law, when group homes are used, they will now be required to carefully document how they monitor and prevent child maltreatment and deaths. They will also be required to provide quick follow-up and plans for dealing with any problems noted.
In summarizing the importance of the new legislation, bill co-sponsor Wyden said: “The Family First Prevention Services Act will usher in the most significant improvements to the child welfare system in decades and provide real help to families to fight the opioid epidemic. We owe our most vulnerable children the best chance to stay with their families when it’s safe to keep them at home and the highest standards of care to protect children who are already in foster care.”
It is hoped that the new law will indeed improve the lot of America’s millions of abused and neglected kids and keep them out of the often predatory and abusive foster care system. However, the reality is that vast numbers of parents are unfit and will remain unfit and their children need real care from sane, functional and compassionate people.
The next step will be to address the lack of effective addiction treatment centers and further reduce the prescription of addictive pain-killers that start many on the road to ruin.