Tony Fadell founded the smart thermostat company Nest in 2010. Before that, he spent seven years at Apple, where he helped design the iPod, iPhone and the iPad—and transmuted human society along the way.
Now it seems he’s got a lot on his visionary mind, judging by the worries he shared at a recent panel at the Design Museum in London.
“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?” he said. “Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can—like we see with fake news—blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”
He expressed worry about how phones have become extensions of ourselves, something that he can he see in his children whenever tech is taken away. “They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them—they get emotional about it, very emotional,” he says. “They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”
In saying that, Fadell is onto a very interesting and troubling branch of psych research—studies find that the more “smartphone dependency” people have, the more they feel phantom buzzes in their pockets, since the brain is primed to perceive the things it craves the most.
As Katharine Schwab notes at Fast Company, Fadell says that tech designers didn’t realize the Pandora’s Box they were opening up in the world partly because of the “self-absorbing culture” of Silicon Valley. The people who made these addictive products have pathologically similar class, ethnic, and gender backgrounds—Why Can’t Silicon Valley Solve Its Diversity Problem? The New Yorker politely asks—and so it’s hard for them to sympathize with users who don’t have similar life experiences. It’s what technologist Om Malik calls an “empathy vacuum.”
But now, as brogrammers turn into dadgrammers, that’s starting to change. “A lot of the designers and coders who were in their 20s when we were creating these things didn’t have kids. Now they have kids,” Fadell says. “And they see what’s going on, and they say, ‘Wait a second.’ And they start to rethink their design decisions.”And slowly, but surely, tech is starting to ask itself tough questions. Chief among them: what if instead of controlling your life, your phone helped you live it?