Key Issues Overview

Today’s World & Technology

We live in a time of unprecedented technological advancement. New innovations have brought many benefits to society, including increased connectivity, greater access to information, and new forms of expression.

However, many of these advancements have also had dire consequences.

For example, social media brought immediate connectivity to family and friends. Still, it has also negatively impacted childhood and adolescence, contributed to widespread disinformation, and interfered with free and fair elections.

Key Issue Areas

Today’s youth face unprecedented physical, mental, and social challenges exacerbated by fast-changing tech.
Attention &
Mental Health
Technology is extracting our attention, weakening our memory, and driving addiction, loneliness, and depression.
Information
Environment
Misinformation, sensationalism, bad actors, and coordinated bots are destroying our information ecosystem.
Maximizing engagement amplifies outrage, deepens divisions, and reduces empathy, which is eroding shared consensus.
Privacy &
Safety
Our data is exploited by an industry that extracts our attention, shapes our thoughts and behaviors, and makes us vulnerable to risks – all for profit.

Move Fast & Things Break

Technology is advancing exponentially, which makes it harder to address its negative effects.

For years, Silicon Valley has operated with a “move fast and break things” mentality. But as we’ve seen, it’s not just technology that breaks. By the time people understand the negative externalities of a new platform, product, or service, the harms can be difficult to reverse.

In other industries, we have protections to protect against adverse consequences from innovation. For example, governments have strict requirements on developing, testing, and administering new drugs that ensure they’re safe before being publicly available. Unfortunately, we have no such system for technology today.

In the video below, our Co-Founder and Executive Director Tristan Harris explains more about the effects of accelerating technology:

Why We Focus on Social Media

There are many tech products, services, and platforms that negatively impact people and society.

Yet, social media is particularly problematic for the following reasons:

It is widespread.

Social media has become a primary communication tool for 4.7 billion people worldwide, who average 2.5 hours on it daily.1

Social media companies are wildly powerful.

Never before have so few companies had such control over us. In many ways, social media companies like Facebook are more powerful than most nation-states.2

It influences our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.

Powerful social media algorithms and meticulously designed features dictate our digital experiences. The choices we are offered and the content we see impacts our thoughts and actions.

It affects our ability to make sense of the world.

Social media usage negatively affects our attention and cognition. This, combined with information overload and rampant misinformation, erodes our ability to discern fact both online and offline.

Social media is increasingly difficult to regulate effectively.

We are caught in a loop where the effects of social media have made people more confused and polarized than ever. As societies become more divided, people lose faith in institutions and even democracy itself. This, combined with a powerful tech lobby, makes social media difficult to regulate effectively.

In addition to our focus on social media, Center for Humane Technology also addresses other forms of widespread, extractive technology.

Understanding the Attention Economy

Platforms profit by maximizing the amount of time users spend looking at, and clicking on, advertisements.

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Our Attention Is Currency
Tech platforms are caught in a race to monetize our attention and get us addicted to their products

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Attention is Mined & Sold
Human nature and user data are exploited to maximize engagement and sell targeted content

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Platforms Profit on Harms
Platforms profit from our attention, unleashing wide-ranging harms to society, from addiction to polarization

Many of today’s most popular platforms — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, Google — are “free” for us to use. Yet, they are some of the most profitable companies of our time.

So how do they make their profit? The “attention economy.”

What is the “attention economy”? Platforms rely on digital advertising to keep offering their products to us for “free.” These platforms make money based on the number of views and clicks each ad receives. Therefore, the more time we spend on a platform, the more ads we give our attention to, and the more money these platforms make.

They have built powerful engagement-maximizing algorithms – driven by the endless data platforms collect on us – because this “engagement” increases the money they can make.

Maximizing our attention means maximizing their profit. As stated in The Social Dilemma, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

Moving Forward

Many of the negative effects of new technology are preventable.

Causing harm to individuals and society is not a “cost of doing business”; we do not need to accept the current, negative effects we are facing. Technology can and should increase our well-being, strengthen our democracies, and improve our shared information environment.

To avoid negative consequences, we must assess technology as a system of incentives and bring stakeholders into the process of creating a more humane future.

Learn more about our approach to solutions and how you can help create positive change.