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Technology, Addiction, and Time Well Spent

Time Well Spent, the nonprofit started by repentant persuasive technologist Tristan Harris, has launched the Center for Humane Technology, a group that includes tech CEOs, investors, scholars, and mindfulness advocates.

“The race for attention is eroding the pillars of our society,“ the group’s website says. It warns that recent tech trends are putting our children, our mental health, and our democracy at risk.

This development comes a couple of weeks after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg embraced (or perhaps co-opted) the concept of “time well spent” in his announced changes to the News Feed.

On some level, the struggle over technology and its impact is a battle between world views. In an interview with J + D, Nir Eyal, the author of “Hooked” and a guest at tonight’s J+D panel discussion, emphasizes individual liberty and agency:

If people don’t like these products, and they don’t feel like they make their lives better, they shouldn’t use them. I think it’s counterproductive to refer to these technologies as “hijacking your brain” and “irresistible.” When we say that, we make it so.

One alternative is a more active government role in regulating the flow of information and the techniques available to do this. This isn’t a new argument: think of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and the rules against subliminal advertising on television my sources.

The Obama administration embraced data-driven behavioral nudges when they, for example, got people to save more money for retirement. Embracing this kind of behavioral science is easier than increasing funding for Social Security or mandating that companies give pensions to their employees.

This is a funny one for journalism. The penny press, the nightly news, and 24-hour cable channels were all technological innovations that established new habits for readers, and battled for their attention. Other forms of attention manipulation — direct mail campaigns, for example — were less obvious and evolved less quickly. More recently, the instant feedback loops of digital marketing have accelerated companies’ ability to manipulate the public.

The hardest thing will be reaching a consensus on humane technology. What are consumers, policy makers, industry leaders and shareholders willing to accept? What are the limits of controls on technology? We’re discussing these issues at our event tonight. You can tune in to the livestream starting at 7pm ET here.