Big tech has changed how we live, but we need to wrest back control - Op Ed, Sydney Morning Herald


The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 2020

The US Department of Justice's case against Google is the biggest competition lawsuit against a tech company in two decades. Facebook, Apple and Amazon are reportedly also under investigation. In a relatively short space of time, these behemoths have come to dominate the sharemarket, reshape the economy and change the way we live.

For starters, we are spending more time on our phones, a trend that is worrying mental health experts. Google has been central to this transformation. It now dominates not just the search engine market but is one of the main players when it comes to online advertising, video streaming, online maps, virtual assistants and mobile operating systems.

The change has happened fast. The iPhone was first released in 2007. The first commercial Android touchscreen phones launched in 2008. Key social media platforms also had their genesis around this period, including Facebook (publicly launched in 2006), Twitter (founded 2006), Tumblr (2007), WhatsApp (2009), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2010), Pinterest (2010) and TikTok (2012).

As Netflix's new movie The Social Dilemma points out, today's teenagers may now be spending more time on their devices than socialising in person, and it is changing who they are. In the United States, today's teens are less likely than those in previous generations to leave the house without their parents. They are less likely to get together with friends, less likely to go on dates, and less likely to have a driving licence.

While Australia lacks good surveys on teens' socialising patterns, there has been a troubling decline in mental wellbeing. A survey of primary and secondary school students found that in 2005, 33 per cent reported feeling very stressed. By 2017, that figure had risen to 49 per cent. The past decade has also seen an increase in suicide among Australian teenagers, from seven deaths per 100,000 in 2010 to 10 deaths per 100,000 in 2017.

Although the causal connection isn't rock solid, many experts worry that excessive smartphone use may be bad for our mental health. One warning sign is that some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley are part of the movement to curb excessive use. Bill Gates would not let his children have a phone until they were teenagers, and his wife Melinda believes they should have waited longer. Steve Jobs would not let his children use iPads, and insisted on device-free family dinners. Evan Williams, who co-founded Blogger, Twitter and Medium, doesn't let his children have iPads, preferring books instead.

Google's origins were as a timesaving device – because its search engine was superior to rivals like AOL and WebCrawler, you got to your internet destination faster. But some of its products are now more of a time-sink. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world wide web, warns that sites such as YouTube and Facebook aim to keep people engaged for as long as possible: "People are being distorted by very finely trained artificial intelligences that figure out how to distract them."

Sean Parker, Facebook's founding president, admits that the goal of the social media platform was to consume as much of users' time as possible. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while,” because, he admits, “I find myself getting addicted – yes, in some cases, by the very things I've built.” Parker fears for a world in which people are constantly distracted from their most important goals: “These are our precious, finite, mortal little lives. The idea that we are spending them distracted, not accomplishing the thing that we're trying to do, is just painful. It's crazy.” The ecosystems of large technology companies continue to grow – expanding in recent years to cover areas such as payments, wearables and data storage.

Perhaps the most anxious insider is former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, who says of excessive screen use: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it's closer to crack cocaine.” He argues that technologists have been slow to recognise the addictive power of their products, which directly target “the pleasure centres of the developing brain”. Anderson's five children are now subject to a dozen "tech rules", including no phones until high school, no iPads, no screens in bedrooms, and screen time schedules.

Just as competition regulators are reckoning with the impact of the technology giants on the economy, each of us need to think about the impact that devices are having on our lives.

In Reconnected: A Community Builder's Handbook, we advocate "CyberConnecting". This isn't about logging off completely, it's about using technology more intentionally. It's vital to recognise that social media is created by savvy designers who often exploit human biases. As with alcohol, gambling and painkillers, many people find it hard not to over-consume. Like a magic pudding, devices offer a ceaseless supply of content. To reconnect Australian communities, we must get smarter about how we use our smartphones.

Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell are the authors of Reconnected: A Community Builder's Handbook.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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