Ex-Google staffer warns social media, apps are ‘Big Tobacco for our brains’
The wildly popular Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” tackles the negative impact social media and Big Tech can have on people and a central figure in the film thinks it’s “creating a global moment of awareness.”
“This is, I think, the most deep and subtle issue of our time … I believe it’s actually an existential threat to democracy,” Harris told “Bill Hemmer Reports” Thursday.
Harris then held up a smart phone explaining just how dangerous technology can be.
“Three billion people have a brain implant that’s a remotely controlled brain, because — especially in the coronavirus times — we are relying on these things to makes sense of what’s reality out there in the world,” Harris said. “They have become the fabric for our sense-making and the fabric of our choice-making, the fabric of how children develop.”
“The Social Dilemma” features seveal of Silicon Valley insiders explaining the dark side of social media, with everyone from the co-inventor of Facebook’s “like” button to high-powered executives weighing in.
The film documents how Harris attempted to change the industry from the inside, which included creating a presentation that he distributed to his Google colleagues.
“It basically just said, ‘Never before in history have 50 designers, 20 to 35-year-old white guys in California, made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people,’” Harris says in the film. “Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said, ‘This is how notifications work on that screen that you wake up to in the morning.’”
Harris, who is now president and a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, elaborated on his fears to host Bill Hemmer Thursday.
“It’s because of this business model that’s at the heart of these technology companies, which is that they make more money the more time they get you to spend,” he said, adding that people are more likely to spend time on content that affirms their prior beliefs.
“It’s bad for the collective … no matter where you fall on all these sides, we need to be able to agree in society on what we want to do about various problems we have,” Harris said. “Whether it’s poverty, or climate change or racism, whatever we care about, we all have to come together and have a shared set of facts … technology makes us operate in narrower and narrower, incompatible views of reality.”
Harris feels that someone should have “blown the whistle” on the tech industry long ago.
“Personally I’ve been working on these issues for more than eight years. I literally dedicated my life to this,” he said. “I think this documentary has, for the first time, created a global awareness about this problem because in 190 countries and 30 languages, in breaking a documentary record on Netflix … I think it’s creating a global moment of awareness. It affects all of us.”
Hemmer then asked Harris how young people could be impacted by spending too much time on their phones and scrolling through social media.
“We actually know that exposure to Facebook early on reduces grey matter in the brains,” Harris said, citing data from Ledger of Harms.
“As the film describes, especially for teenage girls between 10-14 years old, the risk of self-harm, suicide and depression has gone up dramatically since about 2009-2011, which is when social media came out on mobile phones,” Harris said. “I think that’s really the most alarming when it comes to kids’ mental health.”
Hemmer told Harris he was “painting a pretty dark picture” and the former Google employee agreed.
“You’re raising an excellent point,” Harris said. “Fundamentally, the question we have to ask is, ‘Are they designed by child psychologists asking what’s best for children?’”
In fact, Harris said, most apps are typically designed by people who simply care about creating an addicting product.
“It’s kind of the new Big Tobacco,” he said. “It’s Big Tobacco for our brains.”