Recently, a string of Silicon Valley execs have been warning about the dangers of the very products they’ve created. Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist, sounded the alarm about how technology is hijacking our society. Last month, The New York Times launched a series profiling tech titans who stringently limit their children’s screen time to curb its harmful effects on their minds and development. Google and Apple themselves have even been launching features that encourage people to limit their tech use. Now Justin Kosslyn, another former Google exec who leads the product management team of Alphabet’s Jigsaw that builds technology to thwart threats to global security, wrote a bold essay for Vice’s Motherboard, which Vox’s Ezra Klein calls “a direct aim at not just one of Silicon Valley’s founding assumptions, but one of his parent company’s core business strategies.” In his piece, Kosslyn unpacks why we need more friction, which he defines as “delays and hurdles to speed and growth,” not less.
While Kosslyn acknowledges the rewards of the frictionless movement of data online — we quickly and easily correspond, shop, get the latest news — he goes on to write that it expedites the spread of disinformation, ransomware and phishing.
His explanation for how tech could benefit from “bringing back friction,” offers a useful guide on how we can improve our lives.
Stop the false urgency and slow down
“Only urgent content should be fast. Most content is not urgent,” Kosslyn writes, noting that the benefits of engineering “extra delays” algorithmically could protect us from phishing (emails fraudulently sent from companies to induce recipients to reveal personal information like credit card or social security numbers) and malware (software to damage or disable computers or computer systems). Protecting our devices and identities is in all of our interest, but there’s another life lesson to glean from Kosslyn’s first tip. The digital revolution, despite its ample contributions to our collective betterment, has also created a frenzy within each of us that’s eroded our ability to focus, prioritized quantity over quality, challenged our real life connectivity and exacerbated our stress and anxiety. We’re now pulled in so many different directions — between all of our gadgets and social media accounts — that we can’t be still, not even to sleep well.
Research shows that learning how to slow down, whether by meditating or various other breathing techniques, has numerous health benefits. New trends like Slow Radio (see: BBC Radio 3 on Apple’s iTunes) cultivate tranquility with programing that aims to soothe your brain, whether it’s with sounds from nature, the steady hum of busy city streets or soft meandering music. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which was born in the early aughts, but has recently gone viral, can offer similar relief — a new study indicates it may help our mental health and even reduce heart rate — with videos and podcasts featuring soft whispers, shuffling paper, or an ASMRist (as they are called) cutting someone’s hair. Or, go offline completely and take a leisurely walk in your local park or neighborhood, which also has a plethora of rewards, including improved sleep and focus.
Remember your humanity
Kosslyn urges tech designers to remain cognizant of the fact that “automated systems should not be able to scale without human approval,” as a means of protecting computer systems from viruses. That’s a good one for all of us to remember as artificial intelligence (self-driving cars, self-scanning robots, 3D printers, and voice-powered personal assistants) moves to replace some jobs and jeopardize healthy sociality. As Sherry Turkle, a distinguished professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at M.I.T., and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, warned in the Washington Post: “Interacting with these empathy machines [Jibo, Cozmo, Kuri] may get in the way of children’s ability to develop a capacity for empathy themselves.” A recent New York Times Magazine article similarly weighed in on the potential damage robots can have on our civility. One parent told the Times reporter: “My daughter is growing up in a world where you just speak what you want into the universe and it provides,” which could lead to a sense of entitlement and the inclination to boss people around. Moderation of our gadgetry use is key to maintaining our mental health — and keeping the human in humanity, according to Jean Twenge, the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
Limit your tendency toward tribalism by supporting local news
Tech designers should favor local news that anchors us to our communities, writes Kosslyn, arguing that it will “slow the spread of disinformation campaigns by requiring them to engage at many local levels, rather than as national or global phenomena.” Research indicates that the loss of local media exacerbates political divisiveness because without local coverage, citizens turn to biased media outlets, which foster partisanship, several studies show. So we should all support our hometown media outlets. It may require more effort — more friction — and offer fewer sensational headlines, but it could keep us grounded and ultimately united.
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