- Lucia Blasco
- BBC World News
November 24, 2020, 11:00 GMT
From so much arguing about when technology was going to exceed our capabilities, we lost sight of the fact that machines were focusing on knowing our weaknesses.
It is the foundation that supports a concept that is resounding in Silicon Valley and is known as human downgrading, “human degradation” in Spanish.
It was coined by the computer scientist Tristan Harris and his partner Randima (Randy) Fernando, co-founders of the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), a non-profit organization whose mission is to “reverse human degradation” and “realign technology with our humanity.”
In the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (“The social networks dilemma”) Harris and Fernando expose this question, closely linked to the so-called “attention economy”, or how companies monetize our attention through social networks and other digital technologies.
Fernando, executive director of the CHT, believes that technology should be “more humane.” In this interview with BBC Mundo he explains why.
How did it come about tu interest in the attention economy and why tand it seems important?
My parents taught me mindfulness (mindfulness-based meditation) and technology from a very young age, so I followed that path. I became very interested in computer graphics and worked at Nvidia (a Silicon Valley multinational) for seven years. Then I helped found an organization called Mindful Schools to teach mindfulness in the schools.
I did that for a while until I ran into Tristan [Harris].
We were both very interested in mindfulness (midfulness). We began to realize that we were against how the attention economy constantly competes to train our minds differently.
The attention economy is an adversary of mindfulness.
It is very easy for companies to set up profiles about us based on the information we share on social media, and they share that information with advertisers. This business model makes our attention become vital and also is not based on our interests, but on those of advertisers.
We decided it was best to create an organization to manage the growing interest in the subject (especially since Harris spoke about it on a national television show in 2017) and try to address the problem.
Three years later, we are still at it.
To address the problem, you propose to “reverse human degradation.” What does that mean?
Much of the work we do has to do with the mind, with addictions and how to fight them; with meditation and emotional well-being. Also with democracy and polarization, with the misrepresentation of the truth. All of these issues are interrelated and linked to “human degradation” (human downgrading).
We describe it as something cyclical: as we have improved and updated our machines, we have degraded human beings. And it should have been the other way around. That is something that is constantly repeated.
The ‘human degradation’ has exceeded some important limits. Now that is starting to worry us. “
For a long time, we were very excited about all the technological improvements, but we invested so much effort and energy in advancing technology – which has benefited us so much for decades – that we did not pay enough attention to the changes that were taking place in our brain.
At one point we became vulnerable to it because technology can be used to take advantage of our weaknesses.
What has changed in recent years to bring this issue to the table inside and outside of Silicon Valley?
The “human degradation” has exceeded some important limits, so now it is beginning to worry us.
We are being aware of how notifications try to “hijack” our attention. If designers use it to their advantage, they can make us spend more time on their product, attract our attention so that we notice certain elements through aspects such as screen brightness and other little “tricks.”
And we no longer know what is real and what is not. The deepfakes (videos with apparently real people modified with artificial intelligence) are a good example of this.
The human mind is limited. It is wonderful in many ways, but it has weak points. Now that we know that technology has crossed that barrier, our enthusiasm has waned because it is something we can no longer control.
However, market forces have continued to use new technologies to their advantage to increase sales. Analysts are fascinated by finding new ways to use technology to their advantage and transform those trends into money. But those who think about the benefits are not considering the consequences.
This is happening all over the world and at all levels. Analysts, product designers and governments are competing with each other. And in the end it ends up being a very dangerous weapon. But there are more and more reactions against it.
Draws its like a wicked system. Could it be predicted in any way?
Yes, of course it was predicted. And not only that: it was also sought by those who want to exploit it in their favor. An important part of the problem is that those who try to find solutions are often not the same as those who create the problem.
There are very competent people raving about the use of technology for a long time, but those who work on technological advances have other incentives and are not interested in slowing down because it often means a disservice to them that their competition can take advantage of.
That is why tackling this problem is so complex. Added to that, “human degradation” is cyclical.
To what to referss with what is cyclical?
When our attention is repeatedly interrupted, we become more distracted. We become the worst version of ourselves. Technology changes us. And that happens constantly and more and more because social networks facilitate that process.
When we compete for attention –likes, comments, shares– We begin to “say” different things, to use another language. We post more attention-grabbing photos, we’re more extreme when debating political issues … all of that benefits algorithms.
At the end of the cycle, technology ends up changing us and, effectively, degrading us. And when we have degraded, we are more vulnerable in the next cycle because when we are more distracted it is easier for a new cycle to occur.
It ends up being a race [de las empresas] for reaching the bottom of our brainstem that brings out the worst in ourselves and that increasingly includes less pause, less reflection and less meditation because we are busy reacting all the time.
It is easy to feel powerless in this situation … what can we do?
It certainly is! It’s such an important part of the economy … It moves trillions of dollars! But we can act on two levels: firstly personal and secondly, collective.
The first step really starts with educating ourselves about it. On a personal level, we can do vital things like limit notifications, use digital platforms less, change what we show on them and our online interactions. Basically, understanding how we are being manipulated and acting accordingly.
In addition, there is the collective plane. So we are creating a space to allow people to express their concerns. One by one we don’t do much, but we all have strength. When we come together is when we can bring about real change. This is very important because “human degradation” is changing us as a society.
The question is: what change do we want to promote? One of the keys is that the product we use must be different, it must have a different coding. And that change must be made from within, but pressure from consumers, investors, politicians, educators and technologists can help it.
We have to change the conditions of the game. The technology that divides society is not “human” technology because it is harmful to human beings.
To what extent would you says that we are opening the way to a more “humane” technology?
To be honest, I am favorably surprised at how far we’ve come because at one point I thought we’d be forever stuck defining the problem.
But now, and partly thanks to the repercussion it has had [el documental] The Social Dilemma (“The social media dilemma”) —which in the first month alone (September) saw more than 38 million people— much more people understand.
Luckily, more and more people are realizing how the information they share on the networks helps the economy of attention. This is very important.
One of the most wonderful things that so many people are concerned about is that we can really pull ourselves together to address it. More and more companies and countries are taking action and I see opportunities for change in the short and medium term.
Now we have to continue spreading the message so that technology is more and more human and allows us to connect better, spread the truth and get the best version of ourselves.
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