Technology is Not Neutral

Most people think technology is neutral and can good or bad, depending on how you use it.

That would be true if forms of technology were value-less, or didn’t come with their own inherent set of values.

But they do.

Technology is not neutral. I repeat, technology is NOT neutral.

Why Technology is Not Neutral

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, says in an interview[1] that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are, indeed, not neutral.

Many people assume these platforms are neutral and believe their experience is based on how they choose to use them. But that understanding misses the reality that each of these companies has thousands of “attention engineers” working to distract its users away from whatever they are doing, and then keep their attention as long as they can.

Harris explained that the theories behind how they engineer their products are coming from the casino industry — an industry notorious for its manipulation of consumers. His comments from one an essay are worth quoting at length:

If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?

How often do you check your email per day?

One major reason why is the number one psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined.

… But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:

  • When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
  • When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
  • When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
  • When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
  • When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.

Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business.

Technology is not neutral; it’s designed to get your attention, whether intentionally or not. And that’s because technology has values.

Technology Has Values

Since most people today think technology is neutral and its moral value is found in its uses, they miss something crucial to understand about technology — it comes with its own values.

Technology is not built in a moral vacuum. A technology’s design imbues it with a set of morals which are then inherent to its use.

John Dyer uses the example of iTunes and the music industry to illustrate how technology has inherent values:

In previous decades, music was recorded on and sold by physical means — vinyl, cassettes, CDs.

In the years since iTunes was released, the music industry has shifted almost entirely to a digital (non-physical) medium of distribution, giving birth to a world where small bands could be known around the world, where consumers buy less music, artists get paid less per song, and many brick-and-mortar stores and businesses have gone bankrupt.

These changes happened because iTunes values quick, easy, and cheap access to music.

While these values may be neutral in and of themselves, iTunes is certainly responsible for positive and negative changes in the world of music.[2]

Another example Dyer gives is cell phones. Originally, people began buying cell phones for safety reasons; they wanted to be able to call someone in need of an emergency.

“We bought our phones,” says Dyer, “because we valued solving one problem (safety) without realizing that the phone also brings with it the value of constant connection.”[3]

Because we didn’t recognize that value of constant connection, we now live in a world where our phones beckon our attention away from whatever is in front of us around the clock.

Yes, anything we could want to know is available all at once, but to have that possibility required us to give up the ability to be fully present.

Technology is not neutral because each form of technology comes with its own set of values — values you may or may not share.


[1] https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-technology-doing-to-us/

[2] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 88 –89.

[3] Ibid., 95.

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