By Susan Charland, AICP
I’d never heard of “humane technology” until a few years ago when I tuned into a podcast featuring Tristan Harris. The former Google Design Ethicist was the first person I’d ever heard clearly articulate why social media tech is so addictive—and why it is so harmful to our psyches.
Hearing Harris speak for 25 minutes was enough to convince me to delete Facebook forever. I also turned off most of my notifications and completely reprogrammed the way I use my smart phone. Since then, I’ve eagerly followed Harris’ movement, which has grown into the Center for Humane Technology. You may have seen their film on Netflix called The Social Dilemma.
According to the Center for Humane Technology, there are many ways that tech companies boost the use of their products—and not always for the benefit of the user or society at large. They use intermittent variable rewards (shown in psychology to keep a behavior going). They provoke FOMO and increase the desire for social approval. They also fuel our need to reciprocate others’ gestures (such as likes and comments), and generally interrupt people’s days. In short, they try to keep us addicted to maximize the time we spend using their product.
Harris’ argument is that technology platforms prioritize engagement and growth, competing for human attention, which has created tremendous (and invisible) harms to society: misinformation, fake news, developmental delays in children, social challenges, loss of ability to focus, stress, loneliness, and systemic oppression among others.
But there is another way
Harris also says that, together, we can change how technology is built. Tech doesn’t have to be so addictive and harmful. And everyone can be part of the growing movement to change the system, including policymakers, users, and technologists.
What does this have to do with Highland Planning? It just so happens that the founder of our firm developed a mobile app that can combat some of these harms. It’s called Instant Input. It is a public engagement platform that allows local decision-makers to share projects with the community they serve. Community members can engage with projects they care about, right from their fingertips, to help move each one forward.
How did a woman-owned consulting firm become a group of “technologists?” Our firm’s consulting work is driven by our values and the belief that better dialogue creates better decisions. Our team designs, plans and implements successful public engagement strategies that reduce risk and create positive outcomes for our clients. We saw a need for a platform like Instant Input and bootstrapped the creation of this tool.
Here’s how Instant Input is humane technology
CHT is promoting a new paradigm for technologists who accept that technology is increasingly shaping our social fabric and want to apply their exceptional skills to realign technology with humanity. One of Highland Planning’s core values is “Honor People.” That value has inspired many of the design decisions that make Instant Input more humane than other technology platforms.
- Instant Input is values-driven (instead of metrics-obsessed). Our product is intended to strengthen relationships with stakeholders and make public engagement easier, more accessible, and more economical. While metrics are important, the app’s features are designed to align with our values. Instead of simply chasing clicks, maximizing time spent, and increasing daily active users, the platform increases transparency in public decision making. It helps deliver the most relevant information to community members with the goal of building relationships and getting public feedback that will help make better decisions.
- Instant Input fosters a sense of agency and community. The app offers straight-forward information and quick surveys about public initiatives that community members can tailor to their own geography and interests. The result is greater transparency between local government and the public. We avoid the pitfalls of apps that focus on user-generated content: misinformation, distorted dialogue, and less empathy. Instead, the app helps create a shared reality and seeks only input that helps make public decisions.
- Instant Input respects your time and attention. The app is non-extractive and non-exploitative. We don’t measure success by how much time people spend using the app or how much money people spend in the app (in fact, there is no way to spend money in the app). Instead, users are encouraged to use the app only when there is information they need about an initiative or an opportunity to provide input on a project they care about. Users can control notifications and there are natural “stopping cues” that signal it is time to stop using the app and move onto something else.
If the idea of helping to make technology more humane (and less of an insidious time hog) is appealing to you, check out this list of steps you can take right now to increase your well-being and regain control.
You and your organization can also support humane technology like Instant Input. With Instant Input, you can engage community members on projects they care about, build relationships with citizens and get quick feedback—all while joining a larger movement for more humane technology.