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'We're being hijacked by technology': Industry insiders question ethics in tech

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by Genevieve Reaume, KATU News

PORTLAND, Ore. (KATU) — We're being hijacked by technology, according to the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit created by former tech industry insiders who have worked for companies like Google and Apple.

The founders of this nonprofit are worried about the toll technology is having on society and the ethics behind development. The goal is "solving digital attention crisis."

Aza Raskin, one of the co-founders of the Center for Humane Technology, is specifically worried about the Silicon Valley’s influence.

"Their best interests are not ours,” Raskin said.

He is concerned about kids, many of whom, he says, base their self-worth off the number of "likes" they get on social media.

"The way in which Silicon Valley decides for you to value your friendships becomes the way you value your friendships and yourself and that's just not right," Raskin said.

Raskin added, he doesn’t believe this was the initial intention. He said the fault lies in the profit model because the products are designed to addict consumers.

"Their interests are not directly aligned with us,” Raskin said.

Through the Center for Humane Technology, Raskin and his colleagues are working to change that. He thinks companies need to admit there’s a problem and remodel how they make their money.

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Raskin compared the status of the technological world right now to the organic movement. For growers, it was much cheaper to grow food with pesticides, which can be harmful to people and the environment. It wasn’t until the people demanded change that the growers had to adhere.

“And if enough people stand up and say, 'No, this is not the way we want to relate to each other, this is not the kind of society we want to live in,’ then there's enough pressure to find better business models and sort of be 'organic of tech,'” Raskin said.

At Portland State University, professors are working to help kids notice their addiction by giving them an inside look at the design process.

There is a cluster of two classes taught within the Engineering and Technology Management (ETM) building: Design Thinking and Human Centered Design. Bill Dresselhaus, a former Apple employee who helped design the Apple Lisa, teaches the courses.

"The whole purpose of Design Thinking and Human Centered Design is to design for people and what they need and what's best for their welfare," Dresselhaus explained.

Dresselhaus doesn’t teach ethics and design separately because he thinks the two go together.

“I don't really have a design ethics part of my courses,” Dresselhaus said. “I don't want to separate design ethics from design because ethics and good design should be built into the process. ... Every designer has to think, ‘What's going to be the end use of this and how are people using it?’”

When Dresselhaus was a developer for Apple and other major tech companies, he followed the lessons he learned while at Stanford.

"Every day they would ask us, 'Does anybody need it, does anybody care? Is it of any value?'” Dresselhaus explained.

There was great value in one of his major designs while at Apple.

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"I was hired to do Lisa, which was the forerunner of the Macintosh,” Dresselhaus said. "The Apple Lisa mouse was the first mass-produced, widely-used commercial mouse. Xerox PARC had a mouse with their original Xerox Alto computer system but only made a relatively few of these. This mouse inspired Steve Jobs to develop the widely used Apple Lisa commercial mouse for the Lisa Computer."

He now teaches that “need finding” strategy to his students.

While the focus of the courses is mostly design, ETM department chair Tim Anderson says students can learn how to stop addiction before it starts.

"If we can help make people more sophisticated consumers and producers of design, perhaps they'll make more informed decisions there,” Anderson said.

Another unique aspect of the course is that any undergraduate can take it. They don’t have to be studying within the ETM department.

"The fact that we have engineers working alongside a music major and a business school student and a philosophy major,” Anderson said. “They're changing the ways that they converse, the ways that they talk about technology, the way that they talk about design and the physical products.”

Anderson, Dresselhaus, and Raskin all agree: it’s not just the developers and technology companies to blame, consumers also have a part.

Raskin said after companies admit there’s a problem, consumers need to identify theirs. You can take a quiz to see if you’re addicted to your phone. If you decide you need to cut back on your screen time, Raskin suggests the following tricks:

1. Turn off unnecessary notifications

2. Turn your phone on grayscale mode. A black and white phone is much less appealing

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3. Try only charging your phone to 80 percent, that way you know you should only use your phone for necessary things, not to constantly check social media.

4. If you want change, you should call your local representatives and ask for it.

5. It’s a good idea to talk about this with your kids, so they understand the impact technology can have on them.

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