The crisis in tech can be traced in part to less-than-conscientious design. We’re all familiar with its worst manifestations—from iPhones that encourage excessive screen time to social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube that are addictive and prioritize sensationalized content. But what do we do about it? That’s where the debate continues to rage.
On Thursday, at Fast Company‘s first annual Impact Council, the issue was heartily debated and discussed by Imran Chaudhri, the founder of Humane and a former designer at Apple, and Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business. They both described their own experiences with the ethics of design, with Chaudhri talking about his time at Apple and expressing his own regret that “we were very late to some of the things that have impacted people in the attention economy,” such as concerns about users, especially children, spending too much screen time on their iPhones and iPads. In the early days of designing the phone, “we talked about the idea that you can limit the amount of screen time, and we had an awareness that this was going to be an issue for a long time. The motivations behind not doing it were propelled by the App Store economy,” he said. He explained that the company’s profit motive—getting more users to download more apps—outweighed concerns about the potential impact of all that engagement.
Galloway cut to the heart of the matter with tough words. “I think that the majority of design jobs and the genius in design right now is to bio-mechanically addict us,” he said, then gave a sobering account of his own addiction to social media, comparing it to his father’s cigarette habit: “Twitter is my smoking.” The audience laughed but got serious when he asked whether his 8-year-old and 11-year-old sons would be able to modulate their social media use as well as he does. “So, what is the greatest kind of design achievement from a purely human behavior standpoint? That we have kids literally addicted to their screens.” He went on to note the dramatic increase in teen suicide admittances to emergency rooms. “That’s probably the most influence of design thinking that I’ve seen happening right now,” he said.
Galloway was being deliberately provocative to make his point, but both he and Chaudhri agreed that profit has played an enormous role in blinding tech companies to the consequences of their creations. And they both targeted Facebook, the poster child for everything wrong with tech in the past two years, for its particular egregious obliviousness. “They knew what was happening–and they profited off a lot of it,” said Chaudhri. Galloway chimed in that we should hold Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, as well as the executives at Google and Apple, accountable, “in the same way that we’ve held petroleum companies and tobacco companies accountable.”
But when it came to articulating potential solutions, they took different tacks. Noting how conventional science is guided by rules and regulations, Chaudhri said computer science needs similar constraints: “We all need to come together and form some sort of ethics and morality panel on the UN level that involves everybody,” he said. Galloway was more blunt in his assessment: “We have fallen into this very dangerous numb complacency that the world is what it is. No, it’s not. The world is what we make of it. Break that shit up!” He’s not alone. In the last year, a bipartisan chorus of voices in Congress, from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to Republican Senator Ted Cruz, have expressed support for the idea of breaking up some of tech’s biggest giants.