For­mer Google and Face­book Engi­neers Form Cen­ter for Hu­mane Tech­nol­ogy

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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 (hu­ 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.

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