Downgrading Humanity

Are we downgrading society? Are we downgrading the quality of people’s beliefs?

An excerpt from Your Undivided Attention, a podcast episode featuring a conversation with Guillaume Chaslot, a former software engineer at YouTube, and Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, founders of the Center for Humane Technology.

On this point about awareness, I think a lot of people think, “Oh, raising awareness, that sounds important, but it’s not going to do anything. That’s not going to cause any change to happen.” Let’s talk about why and when this actually does make a change. So we just introduced this phrase of human downgrading, which is the connected system of problems. How it downgrades our attention spans, downgrades our civility, downgrades our common ground, downgrades the quality of our beliefs and our thoughts, children’s mental health. When we have a phrase that describes the problem, instead of talking about, “Oh, there’s some bad videos on YouTube,” we’re describing the problem not in a systemic way.

It’d be like instead of talking all about climate changes, just talking about coral reefs all the time. People are like, “Coral reefs are kind of important, but is that such a big deal?” versus if you can talk about climate change and how the whole system is moving together in this catastrophic direction. The first thing I think people can do is if you just have this conversation three times a day, human beings respond to public pressure. When there’s three times in one day you hear it from a school teacher, you hear it in your design meetings, you hear it in your product meetings. If people say, “Are we downgrading society? Are we downgrading the quality of people’s beliefs?”

And not saying that in an accusing way, even though it sounds that way. What we’re encouraging us to ask is just like we saw with “time well spent.” “Time well spent” and the “attention economy” and “technology hijacking our minds” are three phrases that started to colonize the public discourse. And now so many people are talking in terms like that. It has led, along with political pressure, along with hearings, to huge changes. And in the past, YouTube actually has responded mostly when their advertisers get upset. So, actually we might want to put out a call to the heads of Unilever, P&G on this podcast to be really aware of the systemic problem here.

Right now, these guys, these CEOs of Unilever and P&G respond when there’s a specific issue, like child pedophilia, right? Or there is an issue recently two weeks ago of YouTube recommending videos of how to commit suicide to teenagers. And when those issues come up, again because of researchers like you, Guillaume, who raise it to the press, then the advertisers respond. But what we need is the advertisers to respond to the entire problem of human downgrading in a lasting and sustained campaign and effort. Because if they do that, then these companies can’t continue to do what they’re doing.

We’re in the middle of this kind of transition from the kind of fossil fuel age of the attention economy, where it’s all extractive. We’ve got to drill on this race to the bottom of the brain stem, frack your mind, split your attention to seven different multitasking streams because it’s more profitable. That’s the extractive era and that era is over. And we’re moving now to a regenerative era of the attention economy, where we need every single one of these companies: Apple, if you’re listening, Google; if you’re listening, Android; if you’re listening. There’s different players and different things they can do, to move away from human downgrading and move towards a more humane recognition of the vulnerabilities of human nature. And if we do that, we really do believe that that change can happen.

Definitely. There’s so many, things that can be done. So we talked about optimizing different things, optimizing regenerative content, optimizing giving more control to the user. You could build in more metrics for the user to say, “Hey, this content was very helpful or this content hurt me in the long term.” You could report many more kinds of things on taking that into account. So there are a lot of solutions when people notice.

So it’s a bit like you’re fighting the cigarette and tobacco industry. It took so long like to raise awareness, but at some point when the media in the U.S. focused on raising awareness about tobacco, people understood and then smoking became uncool. So common awareness saves lives and will save America I think.

Upgrading Facility at Syncrude Mildred Lake Mine, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Alex Maclean

And just one last thing on that is just the urgency. So those issues, tobacco are huge issues and took 60 years to flip that around culturally. But in this case, when you realize the speed at which technology is evolving and that’s super computer is playing chess, millions and billions moves ahead on the chess board every year. It’s getting better. It’s not moving at a slow timeline, it’s moving at an exponential timeline which is why now is the moment, not later, now, to create that shared surround sound.

We’re all still affected by this. And that’s, I think, the main point to end on: just that this is an issue. We’re all in this boat together, but if we put our hand on the steering wheel, we can turn it. That’s just what we have to do.

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design.

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