The Creators of Some of Technology’s Most Addictive Features Think They’re Harming Us

More and more former Silicon Valley players are speaking out against the psychological tricks the world’s biggest companies use to ensnare the public, warning that they’re degrading mental health and political discourse. That includes some of the very designers and engineers who created the most addictive features of social media and smartphones, among them some of the designers of Facebook’s ubiquitous “like” button.

Writer Paul Lewis profiles these contrarian figures in a vital new feature for The Guardian. They include “Like” co-creator Justin Rosenstein, Rosenstein’s former Facebook coworker Leah Pearlman, and Tristan Harris, a former product designer who became an in-house ethicist at Google before taking his campaign public.

These whistleblowers cite specific tricks used in apps and interfaces to provide users with a rush of dopamine, pulling them back to their phones and other screens hundreds of times a day. Those include the triggering red color of Facebook notifications, autoplay features on YouTube and Netflix, and the pull-to-refresh mechanism of Twitter and other apps.

Some of the insider critiques would seem hyperbolic if they were coming from other sources. Roger McNamee, an investor in both Google and Facebook credited with introducing Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg, now compares those companies to “tobacco companies and drug dealers.”

James Williams, who built important parts of Google’s advertising business, now says the company’s attention-seizing methods are changing people’s brains by privileging “our impulses over our intentions.” He blames those changes for at least some of the shift of global politics towards anger and outrage, rather than debate.

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Even many techies who don’t openly critique their own products implicitly acknowledge they may be harmful. Lewis describes product engagement guru Nir Eyal giving a room full of designers tips on increasing productivity by avoiding the lure of their own products. Some top tech executives have even sent their own children to an elite school that bans screens, according to the New York Times.

Left mostly unspoken in Lewis’ story is that these impacts – just like those of of smoking – are likely to disproportionately fall on less privileged members of society. People with the resources and wherewithal to protect their attention will retain more of the critical thinking skills vital to real-world success, while those caught in the grind of daily survival are more likely to seek solace in the easy distractions of social media. The potential consequences go well beyond politics – other research has recently shown that tech addiction can lead to increased depression and risk of suicide among young people.

Both Williams and Rosenstein call for greater regulation of the techniques they helped pioneer, with Rosenstein characterizing them as “psychologically manipulative advertising.” Absent such regulation, the economics of attention make it unlikely that tech companies will change their ways, or halt their worst impacts. “The dynamics of the attention economy,” Williams tells The Guardian, “are structurally set up to undermine the human will.”

Tech

Self-driving cars are real, but they’re not solving mysteries yet

Video: Armand Valdes, Loris Ravera, Quincy Ledbetter

Carmakers are working hard to develop fully autonomous, self-driving cars.  And while we have some time to go before we can just hop into a car and let it drive us wherever we please, semi-autonomous cars are currently available and on the road today.  

So how does autonomous driving work, and what technology is used to make this futurist fantasy a reality? Check out the latest installment of Mashable Explains in the video above for those answers and more.  

Also, make sure to subscribe to Mashable on YouTube for new episodes of Mashable Explains every week. Read more…

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Here’s the one VR concept that the smartest people at Oculus admit they’re nowhere near figuring out

We finally have a workable virtual-reality platform, but plenty of obstacles are between us and a Star Trek-style holodeck.

If you reach out to touch a table, you’ll feel the molecules of that piece of furniture push against your hand. Do the same thing in virtual reality, and you’ll feel nothing. This is a problem — and it’s one of the few that Oculus VR says it has no idea how to solve.

The company held a keynote address as part of its annual Oculus Connect developers conference today, and it put on something of a parade of its top talent. Business-development leader Anna Sweet, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, and even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg all took the stage. But one of the more interesting points came when Oculus chef scientist Michael Abrash gave an in-depth speech about everything the company needs to do to go from where VR is today to where it should get to in the future.

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Abrash talked about improving the visuals with a wider field of view. He talked about providing 3D audio. He even speculated about creating a chemical-based way to deliver various smells to Rift users.

For every problem, he posed a solution that is either possible today or one that the company sees a way to work to in the future. Well, he did that for every problem except one.

Abrash pointed out that no one is even working on a technology that will make it feel like your hand is touching a table where no table exists.

This is something I asked Palmer Luckey about in a conversation we had a few months ago. He told me — and Abrash’s talk today reiterates this point — that the company wants to solve every aspect of VR. He essentially wants Oculus working on a way to fool every one of your senses. When I asked him about touching an object and feeling like it exists, that led us to the aforementioned Star Trek holodecks. That sci-fi technology manifests protons that it can give mass to. When I posed that idea to Luckey as a joke, I was surprised that he had already considered the idea.

“Photons are a dead-end,” said Luckey then.

So while Oculus doesn’t know what will work to make objects feel real in VR, it has already scratched one idea off the list.

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