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Should we trust Silicon Valley to fix itself?

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The tech industry has a bit of a PR problem. From tech addiction to online bullying and foreign influence over elections, consumers are getting skeptical about tech’s impact on our lives. There’s even a push from within Silicon Valley to find solutions to these and other issues. Former employees of Google, Facebook and other tech firms have founded  the Center for Humane Technology to address tech addiction, a problem they helped create. Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood spoke with author and education researcher Audrey Watters about her recent blog post asking whether technologists should be trusted to solve technology’s negative problems. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.    

Audrey Watters: I mean, I think that that’s what’s so, in some ways, sort of galling. Right? There are tons of people who are academics and journalists and activists who have a lot to say about this, but there’s something about Silicon Valley that really eschews that kind of expertise. That’s part of their whole ideology of, you know, move fast and break things. Innovate. The reason that we aren’t innovating is the experts stand in the way.

Molly Wood: Do we have any sense of what these regretful tech titans are going to try to do?

Watters: The Center for Humane Technology is the name of the organization founded by a group of former Google and Facebook employees/executives/investors. One of the most high-profile people in that group is Tristan Harris, who’s given a TED talk. He’s been featured in a lot of articles as being sort of the conscience of Silicon Valley coming forward and saying that these new technologies appear to be addictive and that we should think about ways to spend our time better with the technology that we use.

Wood: And part of what you argued in your piece is that that puts the onus back on the individual to some extent, right? Like on the one hand, you have shareholders, Apple shareholders, saying, “Hey, you as a company need to consider as you design these products whether they actually addict people.” But if somebody like Tristan Harris says these are addictive and you shouldn’t let your kids engage with this technology, it becomes our responsibility.

Watters: It’s really framed in terms of an individual’s decision-making, but in particular an individual as a consumer. And I think that any time you think of the only actions you can take are what you buy and how you choose to spend your money, it really is circumscribing the ways in which we might address the problem. If nothing else, it stops it from being a policy issue, it stops it from being a political issue.

Wood: Let’s take a step back and assume that some of these regrets are sincere and that what some of these people are lacking is just a way forward. What would be helpful?

Watters: I do think listening to people who’ve worked in an industry is really key. It’s time, I think, to pay attention to the communities instead of assuming that you’re just going to engineer a solution for us all. 

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