At the keynote speech at this week's Google I / O developer conference, executives announced new system-level features on Android to help people understand and manage the use of their smartphone. "The excellent technology should improve life, not distract us from it," declared a headline on a new company site, wellbeing.google. The site continues: "We are creating tools and features that help people better understand their use of technology, focus on the most important, disconnect when necessary and create healthy habits for the whole family."
Not so long ago, it has sounded strange to hear a large technology company speak clearly about the need to disconnect. Connecting the world is a gospel for companies like Google, which invests many millions of dollars to ensure that as many people have access to the Internet as possible. Since at least the acquisition of YouTube, the question has been how to make people spend more time with Google, not less.
But the idea that Google should do more to prevent people from becoming distracted began much earlier this week. In February 2013, a product manager named Tristan Harris sent a presentation created with Google Slides to about 10 friends within the company. The presentation, entitled "A Call to Minimize Distraction and Respect for User Attention," asked Google to help people spend less time glued to the screens. "A change like this can only happen from top to bottom, from the big institutions that define the standards for millions of people," Harris wrote. "And we're in an excellent position to do something about it."
Harris was not the only Google employee to advocate for moderation in feature design, and the company's ideas on the subject continued to evolve after its release in 2016 But his presentation, which extends to 141 slides, He galvanized discussions on Google when Harris published it, according to former employees I spoke with.
It came seven years after the YouTube acquisition, and two years after Google's efforts to incorporate Google+ into a viable Facebook competitor, which had been internally controversial. Harris' slides were finally seen by tens of thousands of employees, and they ignited conversations about the company's responsibilities much later. They were often referred by employees who fought internal battles for features designed to maximize user attention, former employees said. But while it attracted both supporters and skeptics, few direct actions derived from it.
The complete presentation, which had never before been fully shared, is an attractive historical artifact of the evolving thinking of technology companies . Read today, the document from five years ago shows that ideas about distraction and the potential for overuse of smartphones had a long gestation period within Google. For the most part, Harris did not make recommendations on the specific characteristics that Google should build. Instead, he asked the company to consider more the way it creates products such as smartphone notifications, email and web browsers. (The company declined to comment on the presentation.)
Among other things, the slide panel asked Google to reduce the frequency of interruptions, batch notifications in a summary and insert friction in the process of reviewing the phone to encourage people to use it less, all the elements incorporated in the latest version of Android. Android P allows you to turn on a phone to change it to do not disturb, receive a summary of notifications and set the phone in a "deactivation" mode that turns phones into grayscale before going to bed, which may discourage use of the telephone). 19659009] Harris said he was pleased by the actions Google announced on Tuesday. "These are the small steps of the humanitarian technology movement," Harris said in an interview. "It is a path of 10,000 steps to fix all this." But it's really important to celebrate the fact that Google is really doing it. "
Harris said that Google's adoption of digital well-being demonstrated that there is a Strong consumer demand for such characteristics, and said he hoped that employees of other technology companies felt empowered to drive additional changes.
So, why did it take so long? None of the features that Google announced this week It's particularly complicated from a technical point of view, but Chris Messina, who worked with Harris on Google, said the presentation came at an inconvenient time for Google In 2013, top executives were consumed by the threat that Facebook's walled garden represented for Google, he said, at the time, it was not clear that pushing users to spend less time on Google being It was good for the company.
"I think he was not only fighting in an uphill battle, but he was simply not providing any arrow, so to speak, to help them win against Facebook," Messina said. "It was like, do you want to run this potato sack race back with a water buffalo chained to your back?"
Even so, Harris would later take the title of "design specialist" in the company, a position he held until 2016, when he left to found the organization that is now called the Human Technology Center. The organization opposes what it calls "the race to monetize our attention," and demands more humane business models, policies and design standards.
Half a decade later, Google's investment in Google+ is shrinking. And even Facebook, which like Google has been at the center of the debate over time, acknowledged in a blog post last year that, in some cases, using Facebook could be detrimental to your mental health. So far, the company's response to this question has been to use Facebook differently, instead of using it less. He says that liking and commenting on your friends' publications is related to improvements in mental health.
Google moves this week could lead companies like Facebook to follow. "This will put pressure on all these other companies to follow the same path," said Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee who recently joined the Center for Human Technology. "Google should be praised for being the first."
It remains to be seen which companies follow Google in creating features designed to allow users to regain their time. (Apple, which created its own site to promote smartphone controls for its family in March, is perhaps the most likely candidate). The basic ideas have been circulating inside the technology companies for years; they just had to wait for the moment to catch up. they.
"So far, the attitude of the technology industry has been" Do you have any problem? It's your responsibility to use it differently ", said Harris. "Now it is our responsibility to design technology in a way that cares about people first." Whether the problems are false news, mental health, loneliness or addiction, this moment marks that the situation is changing. "