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Finding our way with humane technology

I’m sure for many of us it is difficult to imagine our lives without technology. More specifically, technological devices that connect us to the internet such as cell phones, laptops, gaming systems, computers, and tablets can often seem like lifelines. If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking “wow, what would I do without the internet?” you’re not alone.

It really does come in handy when you need to find a substitute ingredient when cooking or baking, get directions, want to learn more about a subject or topic you are interested in, and so much more. This very blog post wouldn’t be accessible without technology! So, there is no denying that technology is useful and can improve the quality of one’s life.

However, in many ways the internet is quite unregulated and can end up being harmful. Unfortunately, consumer technology is created in a way that doesn’t actually have the consumer's best interests at heart. This is what the Centre for Humane Technology wants to fix.

The Centre for Humane Technology (formerly known as Time Well Spent) is a non-profit organization that is “dedicated to radically reimagining the digital infrastructure.” Their overall goal is to “drive a comprehensive shift towards humane technology that supports our well-being, democracy, and shared information environment.”

Why we need a shift towards humane technology

Let’s talk about some of the downsides of consumer technology that the Centre for Humane Technology is aiming to correct. They have identified some of the systemic harms of the attention economy, which includes internet addiction, mental health issues, political extremism, political polarization, and misinformation.

Not only has the Centre for Humane Technology identified these issues, but they also are taking actions and providing resources to help people combat them.

Internet addiction

When you think about common addictions, internet addiction might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, while it is not officially recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is prevalent and has the potential to cause significant harm.

We all rely on the internet a decent amount – and that’s fine. It's when the internet starts to interfere with your daily life or ability to get things done that internet use becomes an issue. Constantly checking Facebook, online shopping, or internet browsing in general can disrupt your productivity at work and school, as well as harm your personal relationships.

Unfortunately, social media sites, gaming sites, and other websites we often frequent are designed in a way that encourages users to stay online. Examples of such design features include app notifications, gaming and online shopping reward systems, and the desire to gain social approval through “likes.” 

How is the Centre for Humane Technology addressing this issue? Well, first of all, they have come out with some great toolkits that help individuals increase their wellbeing and regain control. Their Take Control Toolkit includes some great steps to take which include turning off notifications, downloading helpful tools to manage your screen time, exposing yourself to differing opinions online, and disconnecting/completing a digital detox.

Their Youth Toolkit is another great resource that helps young people navigate and push to change a broken social media environment. The toolkit includes a variety of issue guides that inform youth about issues like persuasive technology, the attention economy, and more. It also includes action guides that help youth tell their social media story, take control of their social media use, and imagine humane technology.

Mental health issues, political extremism, and political polarization

It is no secret that these three issues are exacerbated by the internet. Regarding mental health, studies have shown that excessive social media use can lead to feelings of depression and dependency in some people (source: Piedmont Healthcare).

And really, it’s no wonder considering all of the photoshopped images, unrealistic advertisements, and curated content that we are exposed to. Such content can create unrealistic and harmful standards that we inevitably end up comparing ourselves to even if we think we know better.

When it comes to the effects on youth, the harms of social media and extremist views can be even greater. With underdeveloped critical thinking skills, of youth who are still learning and developing, it becomes that much harder to distinguish between what is and is not real on the internet. This may lead to self esteem issues, feelings of depression, and a warped sense of reality.

Social media sites are also responsible for encouraging political extremism and political polarization. Sites such as Twitter and Reddit create so-called “echo chambers” that prevent users from exposure to information and viewpoints that contradict their personal beliefs.

This limits the opportunity for growth and collaboration which is necessary in order to solve many of the world’s societal and environmental issues.

So, how is the Centre for Humane Technology helping solve these issues? Once again, they are helping through public education. In 2020, the co-founders of the Centre for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin, and Randy Fernando, were featured in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.”

This documentary examines social media’s negative effects on mental health and profits off political polarization and the spread of conspiracy theories. This really is an eye-opening documentary that you may want to set some time aside for!

Additionally, the Centre for Humane Technology also has a podcast called “Your Undivided Attention” which uncovers and provides solutions for some of these issues.

Working with Technologists and Informing Policy Change

In addition to educating the public, the Centre for Humane Technology works with technologists and policymakers to align technology with the public good.

Technologists are encouraged to sign up for their course, the “Fundamentals of Humane Technology” which explores the personal, societal, and practical challenges of being a humane technologist. Their website also provides technologists with a series of principles that can be followed to realign technology with humanity.

Policy Makers are also provided with resources that can be found on the Centre for Humane Technology’s website. Such resources include potential policy reforms, policy principles, and a fact sheet which highlights key data and studies of social media use by minors.

It is vital that we all become much more savvy with our internet consumption. There are plenty of great benefits offered in a wired world, but there are real downsides that we are already seeing in society, and may have even felt in our own experiences.

Resources such as those provided by the Centre for Humane Technology can help you take back control over your own technology usage. Share these resources with friends, family, and anyone else who could use an introduction to humane technology!

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