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How Technology is “Downgrading Humans”?

Have you heard about humane downgrading?

First of all, what is Humane Downgrading?

Humane downgrading is the combined negative effects of digital technology on people and society. The term implies that pervasive elements of technology, including smartphones, social media, and constant connectivity, are degrading the quality of human life.

Harris wants to reverse the harmful effects he believes technology has had on all of us. Tristan Harris and others at the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) coined the term humane downgrading. Tristan Harris’ first big idea for the tech industry, the Time Well Spent movement, was a big hit. Now, he unveiled the sequel — a kind of unified theory of how tech platforms are undermining humanity. Tristan’s idea, which he named “downgrading,” attempts to explain everything from smartphone addiction to political polarization.

xcvxdWho is Tristan Harris?

Known as the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” Tristan Harris was the former Design Ethicist at Google. Harris was among the first Silicon Valley insiders to share his concerns about people’s dependence on technology when he spoke with “60 Minutes” in 2017. He is a world expert on how technology steers us all, leaving Google to engage the issue publicly. Tristan spent over a decade understanding subtle psychological forces, from his childhood as a magician to working with the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, to his role as CEO of Apture, which was acquired by Google.

Why is Tristan Harris focused on “downgrading”?

Six years ago, Harris was a product manager at Google, who published a presentation for his fellow employees to read. Observing how often Google services compelled people to check their email and smartphone notifications, Harris called on his fellow employees to build systems that gave people time back. Harris wrote, “Change like this can only happen top-down, from large institutions that define the standards for millions of people. We’re in a great position to do something about all this.”

The presentation spread like air inside Google. But despite an initial rush of enthusiasm, Harris became convinced that he could be more productive working on these issues outside the company. Harris spent nearly two years pushing change within Google but says he couldn’t get traction. He gave a good speech about how tech companies could protect us from distractions. He also formed the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) with some friends to lobby them to do better. By the time Harris began using the phrase “time well spent” to describe his goal. This movement eventually pushed companies such as Apple and Google to build screen time usage metrics and tools into their phones.

Is Harris asking us to abandon our smartphones? 

No! He isn’t asking us to leave our smartphone. He suggests only to use them intentionally and with care. According to him, tech companies have “downgraded” humanity by promoting shortened attention spans, outrage-fueled dialogue, smartphone addiction, vanity, and a polarized electorate.

The advertising business is the cause of humane downgrading. Free is the most expensive business model we’ve ever created. We’re getting free destruction of our shared truth, free outrage-ification of politics, free social isolation.

zxsMany digital technologies, such as mobile computing and social media, have added extra flavor to the life of users. They’ve literally transformed the way people can connect with friends and family. The world found new ways to access information and forge new alliances with others throughout the globe. However, CHT and others in the human tech movement are referring to as the extractive attention economy is also causing severe harm in a number of areas. The ability to scroll through content endlessly and auto-play features of video platforms like Facebook and YouTube make it harder for people to put down their devices.

Mr. Harris said, “This is overwhelming who we are and our identities. While we have been upgrading machines, we have been downgrading our humanity.”

CHT listed some areas of particular concern. That list includes digital addiction, superficiality, increasing polarization, disinformation, cyberbullying, and social comparison.

How to fight ‘Humane Downgrading’?

If tech giants and policymakers can be convinced that this is an existential problem, then poisonous digital products can be reworked to emphasize less outrage and more healthy conversations. The responsibility for solving the problem should fall on all of them, regardless of their past culpability, which means that a company like Apple, despite being generally disinterested in the attention economy, “can play such a huge role because they can incentivize that race. Humane downgrading is the climate change of culture. Like climate change, it can be catastrophic. Unlike climate change, only about 1,000 people, among like five companies, need to change what they’re doing.

Catalyzing a transition to humane technology

We need to understand human social systems. We need to get deeply sophisticated about not just technology, but human nature and the ways one impacts the other. Technologists must approach innovation and design with an awareness of the protection of the ways we’re manipulated as human beings. Instead of more artificial intelligence or more advanced tech, we actually just need more sophistication about what protects and heals human nature and social systems. We need to stop fracking people’s attention. We need to develop a new set of incentives that accelerate market competition to fix these problems.

Humane downgrading is existential for global completion. Global powers that downgrade their populations will harm their economic productivity, shared truth, creativity, mental health, and wellbeing of the next generations. We need to understand that solving this issue is urgent to win global completion.

Are we ready to fight back?

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