Reflection as a RemedyThere are no quick fixes for this mess. But there are ways to help amplify improvements through individual initiative.
Tristan Harris, mentioned earlier in reference to the Decentralized Web Conference, may be Silicon Valley's best known tech reform agitator. His work on behalf of The Center for Humane Technology, educating both his peers and the public about the industry's surreptitious attention-extraction business model, is urgent, tireless and underscored by genuine remorse for his own culpability as a Design Ethicist at Google.
Though his message is burdened by the reality of Silicon Valley's ceaseless profit mongering, it nonetheless is moving our attention compass toward the most significant step in any recovery program, to first recognize and admit there is a problem.
As Harris emphasizes in the video above, it is our own nature that provides the platform for deception and manipulation to succeed. Through understanding and accepting our own motivations, we may free ourselves from ourselves. The lessons that lead to self-knowledge are as old as contemplation.
Ro Kahanna touches on this insight near the end of an interview/podcast when he notes the need for developing technology within a humanities framework of ethics and sensibilities.
It’s human judgment to shape these platforms and that’s why ultimately, I still believe in the liberal arts and humanities. And in a role for the humanities. I think what technology and technology leaders should recognize is there’s room for art and poetry and philosophy — and not just room, but a necessity for that.A privileged education is not the only way to access the benefit of the humanities. Resources are available in public libraries and are as vast as the Internet itself. A humanities informed worldview encourages thoughtful judgement through comparison, analysis, and connection. As an effective defense against manipulation, it provides a time-tested compass for navigating the subtle power of human communication and how it shapes our lives. Tim Wu's book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads is an excellent introduction to the covert influence of marketing and advertising in our "free will" capitalist world.
To have some sense of how it impacts people. And to understand that ultimately those values are what drive humanity forward. That creating these platforms are extraordinarily beneficial if they are guided by the right values.
Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Kahanna Explains The Internet Bill of Rights
Recode Decode with Kara Swisher - Oct 2018
[From the chapter: Peak Attention, American Style]A more realistic twist on the once trending, "code or be coded", mantra could be "manipulate or be manipulated". Computer code itself is amoral, indifferent to questions of right or wrong. On the other hand, those who specify the objectives to accomplish with code, such as targeted marketing, are not. By the time Zuckerberg was facemashing up his psychology and computer science training at Harvard, the advertising industry was primed and ready for him.
Launched in 1955, the Marlboro Man campaign was...among the most astonishing campaigns in the history of demand engineering...upon the cowboy's appearance, Marlboro went from a mere 1 percent of sales to become the fourth bestselling brand in the United States within a year; its sales increased by an astonishing 3,000 percent over that time.
...advertising was proving that it could project not only "reasons why" but whole mythologies; it was naturally suited to things of the spirit...If ideas of appealing to unconscious desires were once merely in the air, now an array of firms run by professional psychologists offered "motivation research," aimed at the deepest human desires...as one reporter put it in 1959, "The difference between an ad man and a behavioral scientist became only a matter of degree."
Among the most outspoken, highly paid, and controversial of the new commercial psychologists was Ernest Dichter-"Mr. Mass Motivations," as he was sometimes known. A Freudian from Austria, Dichter made his name and fortune as an advisor to companies with marketing problems.
Dichter was...blunt about the purpose of advertising. It was never merely to inform but existed to "manipulate human motivations and desires and develop a need for goods with which the public has at one time been unfamiliar-perhaps even un-desirous of purchasing." His research was conducted through intense, psychotherapy-like sessions with consumers-usually housewives-sometimes several together, which he was the first to call a "focus group." His analysis rarely failed to uncover deep associations, sexual or otherwise, explaining why consumers bought the things they did.
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
Tim Wu - Knopf 2016
...he understands a remarkable amount about other people. Sometimes it seems like the understanding of an alien anthropologist studying earthlings, but it's real. "In college I was a psychology major at the same time as being a computer-science major," he says. "I say that fairly frequently, and people can't understand it. It's like, obviously I'm a CS person! But I was always interested in how those two things combined. For me, computers were always just a way to build good stuff, not like an end in itself."Among Zuckerberg apologists - usually former mentors and current stockholders - a popular excuse for his unethical behavior is that the poor boy was simply deprived of a humanities education. And for some reason, Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, two of the country's oldest and most elite academic institutions, seem to be OK with that.
Mark Zuckerberg - Person of the Year
Time Magazine - December 2010
But even if the Zuck did happen to pick up a few stray Exeter/Harvard credit hours in history, literature, and philosophy - his professed obsession with Augustus Caesar suggests he probably did - this is no guarantee of an ethical character outcome. A humanities/liberal arts education does not by default create good behavior. In fact, the subtlest manipulators are usually well-schooled in ways to persuade others. There is no better proof of that than the Catholic Church.