by Wouter van Noort June 8, 2018
First he was a well-known optimist in Silicon Valley, now Vivek Wadhwa warns against the downsides of technology. “Social media is used as a weapon against ourselves and we are unhappy about it.”
Vivek Wadhwa has made a huge turn in recent years. The legendary entrepreneur, writer and keynote speaker originally made his name as one of the most prominent ‘cheerleaders’ of Silicon Valley. He was closely involved with Singularity University, an almost evangelistic club that has been hammering on the huge promises of the technological revolution in recent years. He taught at Stanford University, the Silicon Valley nursery school, and wrote optimistic books and columns about the future.
But his new book has a completely different tone. Your Happiness Was Hacked, which will appear later this month, is a warning for the shadows of our dependence on smartphones and social media.
“I was too optimistic,” he says from San Francisco on the phone. “Technology would solve all problems of humanity. I left Singularity University because I was disappointed with the Kool-Aid they drank. They believe that technology can do no harm. We are at a crossroads: we now have a choice between a great or a dark future. “
You choose a pretty offensive tone in your book.
“The technology industry has taken over all sorts of techniques from the gambling industry. Gambling machines are designed to lure users back every time by giving nice rewards at the right moments. Even if you lose, you think you win. The methods that tech companies use to make us so addicted are based on decades of psychological research in Las Vegas. We continue to check our Facebook, we want to be rewarded, we keep coming back more and more.
“And in the meantime they are harvesting our data. They want to keep us hooked. And the result is that we are becoming more unhappy. People are no longer coming together. The promise of social media was that people would come together en masse. Instead, we now have Trump. Polarization. All kinds of demons have been released through social media that cleave society. “
Apparently, people also have something to do with those social media: they do not come back for nothing, right?
“Facebook uses our own psychology against us. This is comparable with cigarette companies, drug dealers who feed on our weaknesses. Now companies like Facebook also use advanced techniques such as artificial intelligence, to map our weaknesses even better and to exploit them. It goes way too far what they do. “
Heroin is rather useless and almost exclusively harmful, social media and smartphones are not.
“Of course they are useful if they are only used in moderation. I am not against technology, I am a huge fan of tech. But compare it to marijuana rather than with heroin. A little marijuana can have all kinds of positive effects, on your mood, on your health. But if you use too much of it, it can destroy you. People check their smartphone hundreds of times a day. Many spend entire days on social media in search of social confirmation. Social media are now used as a weapon against ourselves, and we become measurably unhappy. “
Are you not focusing too much on the negative aspect? Think of all the beautiful new interactions between people who emerge through social media.
“That’s my whole point. If you use technology well, if you know its boundaries, then it brings beautiful new things. You do not have to throw all your technology out of the window. But we have to learn to deal with it better. “
Google and Apple recently launched initiatives against smartphone addiction. Facebook also takes measures after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. How do you look at that?
“They only respond to public pressure. There is not suddenly a greater awareness among these companies. I know the people behind it, these are PR maneuvers. They are not serious about it, while the problem is deadly serious.
“Much more is needed than what is happening now. Sometimes Google also shows a perplexing lack of awareness about the problems. Take the demonstration last from Google Duplex, a program that can call independent restaurants and barber shops based on artificial intelligence to make appointments. Just scary. At his presentation, Google proudly showed conversations that could not really be distinguished. The person on the other side did not seem to talk to a computer. This can be used in many very bad ways to deceive people. Google did not even seem aware of this risk at the presentation, that says enough. “
What can people do themselves?
“It starts with understanding how these technologies respond to our psychology, and then take steps to reduce our use. You can turn off push messages, make sure that you switch off your smartphone at set times, do not use smartphones before going to bed. There are all sorts of tricks that vary per person, but they can help to become less dependent. “
It is not just an individual problem, is regulation a solution?
“Yes. We cannot let tech companies determine all the rules themselves, because in the end they mainly want to maximize their profits. Should Apple and Google not be required to install a function so that you cannot access your smartphone while you are driving? Should Google, Facebook and Apple no longer do anything to prevent young children becoming addicted to their products? I think it is inevitable that we make good agreements about this through stricter regulation. We are not doing well enough yet. “