Monthly Archives: October 2016

Summary of “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 11, 2016.)

I recently read an article in The Atlantic by Tristan Harris, a former Product Manager at Google who studies the ethics of how the design of technology influences people’s psychology and behavior. The piece was titled: “The Binge Breaker” and it covers similar ground to his previous piece “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.

Harris is also a leader in the “Time Well Spent” movement which favors “technology designed to enhance our humanity over additional screen time. Instead of a ‘time spent’ economy where apps and websites compete for how much time they take from people’s lives, Time Well Spent hopes to re-structure design so apps and websites compete to help us live by our values and spend time well.”

Harris’ basic thesis is that “our collective tech addiction” results more from the technology itself than “on personal failings, like weak willpower.” Our smart phones, tablets, and computers seize our brains and control us, hence Harris’ call for a “Hippocratic oath” that implores software designers not to exploit “psychological vulnerabilities.” Harris and his colleague Joe Edelman compare “the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.”

[I think this analogy is extraordinarily weak. The tobacco industry made a well-documented effort to make their physically deadly products more addictive while there is no compelling evidence of any similarly sinister plot regarding software companies nor or their products deadly. Tobacco will literally kill you while your smart phone will not.]

The social scientific evidence for Harris’ insights began when he was a member of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. “Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cult-like following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of ‘behavior design’—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill.” As a result:

Harris learned that the most-successful sites and apps hook us by tapping into deep-seated human needs … [and] He came to conceive of them as ‘hijacking techniques’—the digital version of pumping sugar, salt, and fat into junk food in order to induce bingeing … McDonald’s hooks us by appealing to our bodies’ craving for certain flavors; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hook us by delivering what psychologists call “variable rewards.” Messages, photos, and “likes” appear on no set schedule, so we check for them compulsively, never sure when we’ll receive that dopamine-activating prize.

[Note though that because we may become addicted to technology, and many other things to, doesn’t mean that someone is intentionally addicting you to that thing. For example, you may become addicted to your gym or jogging but that doesn’t mean that the gym or running shoe store has nefarious intentions.]

Harris worked on Gmail’s Inbox app and is “quick to note that while he was there, it was never an explicit goal to increase time spent on Gmail.” In fact,

His team dedicated months to fine-tuning the aesthetics of the Gmail app with the aim of building a more ‘delightful’ email experience. But to him that missed the bigger picture: Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives—or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?

[This is an honorable view, but it is extraordinarily idealistic. First of all, improving email does minimally improve our lives, as anyone in the past who waited weeks or months for correspondence would surely attest. If the program works, allows us to communicate with our friends, etc., then it makes our lives a bit better. Of course email doesn’t directly help us obtain beauty, truth, goodness or world peace, if that’s your goal, but that seems to be a lot to ask of an email program! Perhaps then it is a case of lowering our expectations of what a technology company, or any business, is supposed to do. Grocery stores make our lives go better, even if grocers are mostly concerned with profit. I’m not generally a fan of Smith’s “invisible hand,” but sometimes the idea provides insight. Furthermore, if Google or any company tried to improve people’s lives without showing a profit, they would soon go out of business. The only way to ultimately be improve the world is to effect change in the world in which we live, not in some idealistic one that doesn’t exist.]

Harris makes a great point when he notes that “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies”—Google, Apple, and Facebook—“had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention … We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.”

Google responded to Harris’ concerns. He met with CEO Larry Page, the company organized internal Q&A sessions [and] he was given a job that researched ways that Google could adopt ethical design. “But he says he came up against “inertia.” Product road maps had to be followed, and fixing tools that were obviously broken took precedence over systematically rethinking services.” Despite these problems “he justified his decision to work there with the logic that since Google controls three interfaces through which millions engage with technology—Gmail, Android, and Chrome—the company was the “first line of defense.” Getting Google to rethink those products, as he’d attempted to do, had the potential to transform our online experience.”

[This is one of the most insightful things that Harris says. Again, the only way to change the world is to begin with the world you find yourself in, for you really can’t begin in any other place. I agree with what Eric Fromm taught me long ago, that we should be measured by what we are, not what we have. But, on the other hand, if we have nothing we have nothing to give.]

Harris hope is that:

Rather than dismantling the entire attention economy … companies will … create a healthier alternative to the current diet of tech junk food … As with organic vegetables, it’s possible that the first generation of Time Well Spent software might be available at a premium price, to make up for lost advertising dollars. “Would you pay $7 a month for a version of Facebook that was built entirely to empower you to live your life?,” Harris says. “I think a lot of people would pay for that.” Like splurging on grass-fed beef, paying for services that are available for free and disconnecting for days (even hours) at a time are luxuries that few but the reasonably well-off can afford. I asked Harris whether this risked stratifying tech consumption, such that the privileged escape the mental hijacking and everyone else remains subjected to it. “It creates a new inequality. It does,” Harris admitted. But he countered that if his movement gains steam, broader change could occur, much in the way Walmart now stocks organic produce. Even Harris admits that often when your phone flashes with a new text message it hard to resist. It is hard to feel like you are in control of the process.

[There is much to say here. First of all there are many places to spend time well on the internet. I’d like to think that some readers of this blog find something substantive here. I also believe that “mental highjacking,” is a loaded term. It implies an intent on the part of the highjacker that may not be present. Yes Facebook, or something much worse like the sewer of alt-right politics, might highjack our minds, but religious belief, football on TV, reading, stamp collecting, or even compulsive meditating could be construed as highjacking our minds. In the end we may have to respect individual autonomy. A few prefer to read my summaries of the great philosophers, others prefer reading about the latest Hollywood gossip.]

Concluding Reflections – I begin with a disclaimer. I know almost nothing about software product design. But I did teach philosophical issues in computer science for many years in the computer science department at UT-Austin, and I have an abiding interest in philosophy of technology. So let me say a few things.

All technologies have benefits and costs. Air conditioning makes summer endurable, but it has the potential to release hydrofluorocarbons into the air. Splitting the atom unleashes great power, but that power can be used for good or ill. Robots put people out of work, but give people potentially more time to do what they like to do. On balance, I find email a great thing, and in general I think technology, which is applied science, has been the primary force for improving the lives of human beings. So my prejudice is to withhold critique of new technology. Nonetheless, the purpose of technology should be to improve our lives, not make us miserable. Obviously.

Finally, as for young people considering careers, if you want to make a difference in the world I can think of no better place than at any of the world’s high-tech companies. They have the wealth, power and influence to actually change the world if they see fit. Whether they do that or not is up to the people who work there. So if you want to change the world, join in the battle. But whatever you do, given the world as it is, you must take care of yourself. For if you don’t do that, you will not be able to care for anything else either. Good luck.

A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 13, 2016.)

Plato argued that we can’t have a good lives without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.

To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.

Now if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, you wouldn’t take a vote or ask the cashier at the checkout lane in the grocery store. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber or psychologist. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist not a politician ignorant of climate science. Since running the society is the most important job of all, Plato believed it imperative that those occupying political positions must be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class. Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result, because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations is better than if were chosen randomly or by a vote!

By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she know nothing of medicine but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You must expect that those who practice are qualified. And like Plato I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate some relevant knowledge of the job, in the same way you must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhDs) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting, as so many are low information voters.]

Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. Surely all of this is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions I want someone who understand health care, the economy, the environment and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.

Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model or the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.

In the meantime we must hope that we have the wisdom to prevent morally and intellectually bankrupt individuals like Donald Trump from holding high office. And I would like to thank all the woman in this country who are disproportionately saving us from this catastrophe.

Building a Better Human With Science Revisited

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 5, 2016.)

My last post discussed public opposition to “Building a Better Human With Science.” People are generally skeptical of both futuristic technologies as well the scientists developing them. It also turns out that future technologies are disproportionately opposed by religious persons, and most accepted by the least religious. This confirms my experience teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades—a religious worldview is a good predictor of opposition to new technologies.

So the majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! This is truly an astonishing claim. In reply I would say that, while there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if you are really serious about making things better, you should use science and technology—the best means of improving the human condition we have ever discovered.

My post elicited some thoughtful responses. (For the full responses see comments section of my previous post.) Chris argued that “This essay leaves me deeply depressed, because it hits the nail on the head so perfectly. Homo Sapiens are simply incapable of coping with the challenges of modern civilization. The extinction of civilization is therefore inevitable.” This is a depressing thought that I and others have entertained.

Chris also argues that “… the correlation between religious belief and rejection of science is due to an underlying psychology that generates both beliefs.” His point is that religious indoctrination, like indoctrinated racism or sexism, is hard to overcome with rational argumentation. In other words, visceral emotions are not easily expunged from one’s psyche. Dave replied to Chris, arguing that while racism and sexism and other forms of ignorance still exist, there is reason to believe in human moral progress. He offers the recent acceptance of homosexuality in American as an example.

I would add that it takes training in critical thinking for the cerebral cortex to learn to govern the emotional responses that derive from the deep recesses of our reptilian brains. And I also believe we need technologically supplied intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence if we are to survive and flourish. 

Jim commented by saying that “I’m depressed, too, but not for the same reason as Chris.” Jim’s concern is “that corporations would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” He notes that it is the corporate profit motive and not the scientific search for truth that scares him. Jim admits that “many marvelous … new technologies … have proven beneficial … [but] there are also many examples of detrimental and dangerous products that were pushed on an unsuspecting public … So people are right to be a little skeptical and mistrustful—not of the scientists, but of the profit motive of the corporation pushing the product.” I believe Jim’s concerns are legitimate, and I hope that futuristic technologies are well-tested before being used.

Goethe expressed different concerns. He worries that “we are living in an experiment; not one created by nature, but one imposed upon ourselves by ambition. That experiment is unstable, its foundations are centred in our cultural and material perspectives.” His emphasis is on the destruction of the ecosystem, without which life on earth would be impossible for biological beings like ourselves. I completely agree, and no doubt the possibility of any good future depends in large part on our continuing to thrive now, something we cannot do without a clean environment, preservation of biodiversity, control of climate change, etc. Goethe concludes that “For my own view human intellect and moral virtue are enhanced well by meditation and taking time to connect subtly with our world and its inhabitants rather than conquer and profit from it and them.”

I am sympathetic to this Eastern philosophical approach, although I also believe we will need to change ourselves in even more dramatic ways than one can do by meditating if we are to survive and flourish. I would like to thank my commenters for their thoughtful responses to my blog post. I just wish I had the time to give those comments the full replies they deserve. Thanks again to Chris, Jim, Dave, and Goethe.

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 4, 2016.)

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

A recent piece New York Times article, “Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks,” reports on a new survey by the Pew Research Center which show public skepticism about improving the physical and intellectual life of the human species. As reported, “Americans aren’t very enthusiastic about using science to enhance the human species. Instead, many find it rather creepy.” Of course a visceral sense of disgust—what philosophers sometimes call the “yuch” factor—isn’t a good reason to reject new technologies. Antibiotics, in vitro fertilization, and countless beneficial technologies also elicited negative visceral reactions before their use became widespread. And, in the social realm, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia also emanate from deep inside our ape-like brains.

The survey also “shows a profound distrust of scientists …” a particularly painful finding. The public seems unaware that science is the single best means humans have ever had to uncover the truth about the world, as well as being the primary source of human progress. Without science half the people reading this sentence would have died of childhood diseases, and those surviving would have had a short and painful life without clean water, dentistry, vaccinations, antibiotics, and an adequate food supply for billions. And this is to say nothing of planetary communication, computers, air travel, indoor plumbing, etc.

The survey specifically asked the public about three futuristic technologies: 1)using gene editing to protect babies from disease; 2)implanting chips in the brain to improve people’s ability to think; and 3)transfusing synthetic blood that would enhance performance by increasing speed, strength and endurance. The finding weren’t surprising, but were nonetheless depressing: “The public was not enthusiastic … even about protecting babies from disease. Most, at least seven out of 10, thought scientists would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” I’m glad such sentiments were less widespread in the early part of the twentieth-century when childhood diseases were virtually eliminated.

The finding that was most interesting to me was that:

Religiosity affected attitudes on these issues. The more religious people said they were, the less likely they were to want genetic alterations of babies or technologies to enhance adults. The differences were especially pronounced between evangelical Protestants and people who said they were atheists or agnostics. For example, 63 percent of evangelical Protestants said gene editing to protect babies from serious diseases was meddling with nature. In contrast, 81 percent of atheists and 80 percent of agnostics said it was not fundamentally different than other ways humans have tried to better themselves.

These results confirm what I have experienced teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades. When students maintain a religious, usually Christian, worldview, they overwhelming oppose scientific and technological progress and innovation; whereas when they don’t hold a religious worldviews, they are generally receptive to scientific and technological advance. The reasons for this are straightforward. If you believe an omnipotent super-being fashioned a good creation then there is little need to significantly modify it. Furthermore, if said super-being governs that creation and demands respect, then we best not meddle with either the creation or the super-being. On the other hand, if students believe that whether such super-beings exist or not it is up to human beings to determine their own fate, then they typically find ideas like enhancing our bodies and minds much less problematic.

The public also expressed the typical concerns about how such technologies meddle with nature, a version of the “let nature take its course” argument. Again, not surprisingly, it was religious believers who adopted this viewpoint much more often than non-believers. There is much that refutes this argument, but suffice it to say that almost everything about modern medicine is about meddling with nature; it is about not letting nature takes its course. Letting nature take its course means that when you contract an infection your immune system either destroys it or you most likely die. In the past, simple infections were potentially deadly and amputation was a common medical practice. So do you really believe that we shouldn’t meddle with nature? And does doing so follow from a belief in the gods? Why wouldn’t the gods want us to use our reason to improve the world?

In fact the results of these surveys are amazing if you think about it. The majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! I suppose either they believe we should not try to make things better—a truly astonishing claim—or they believe there is a better way than science to make the world a better place. And what way would that be? Would constant petitionary prayer to the gods eradicate cancer? Would fervent belief in Jesus or Mohammed do the trick? Of course many religious people accept using science to improve the human (and post-human?) condition, but there is something about religious belief that makes scientific and technological progress harder to accept.

But the most important point is this. While there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if one is serious about making things better, they should use scientific knowledge and its application as technology to do so, for those have been the most successful means of improving the human condition in the past.  Science is the primary reason we live longer, happier, and healthier lives than ever before.

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass

Everything changes; everything evolves, all is transitory. This may be the fundamental fact of life. Buddhist philosophy is particularly insightful on this point with its distinction between gross and subtle impermanence. In simple language, George Harrison set this idea to music.

“All Things Must Pass”

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning
It’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
Sunset doesn’t last all evening
A mind can blow those clouds away
After all this, my love is up and must be leaving
It’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So, I must be on my way
And face another day
Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away