Why Tech is Not Evil (AP Engish Final)

By now, everyone and their dog has written about how tech is inherently evil, but it couldn't be further from the truth. Anti tech novels, “dumb” devices, and life coaches preaching disconnection all imply technology itself is bad for the brain. Managing tech addiction is a new buzz phrase, and many recent opinion writers have told the story of how “Tech is Evil.” However, Tech is not inherently bad; in fact, tech is hugely beneficial, and the only evils are companies deliberately addicting users to their apps and devices. People spending more time on connected devices is not worse than the last generation--it’s just different.

Tech is not destroying human intimacy and contact--humans utilizing tech irresponsibly are causing the gap in closeness to widen. “Some now believe tech is like the tobacco industry--corporations that make billions of dollars peddling a destructive addiction,” writes David Brooks, an op-ed writer for The New York Times. “[A] critique of the tech industry is that it is causing this addiction on purpose, to make money.” Maybe it is--Snapchat has Snapstreak, which rewards daily use; Facebook has irregularly timed likes, which force you to check their apps often; Apple forces you into their chain of technology. But the main factor to keep in mind is that all of these critiques are of the company. None are inherent of tech, and every one of them can be avoided with safe internet practices and precautions.

A basic step to take when using social apps is to simply work around addictive parts and platforms. This has become more popular recently--Android and iOS both gained tools to selectively block notifications and unwanted distractions using your current location (at work?), current time (at night?), and current phone position (screen down?). Notoriously habit-forming apps, such as Facebook and Reddit, have 3rd party clients developed that help you limit your time on the apps. Really, that’s all there is to it; social media apps are the root cause of the problem, not tech. By blocking all notifications, the app is gagged and kept from disrupting your day. However, some argue that tech is shifting an entire generation. It is--many teens now spend their free time gaming online or on social media. However, this is not inherently bad.

Mobile devices and a global connection to the web is new to the last generation, and while tech is not the root cause of change, it has something to do with how today’s teens spend their time. “Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet,” recounts Jean M. Twenge, a writer for The Atlantic. Twenge is a psychologist that analyzed differences between generations for over twenty-five years, finding abrupt changes from millennials in emotional states and teen behaviors in the internet generation. “The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens,” concludes Twenge, noting that most teenagers are content staying at home with their devices. However, none of this is bad--it’s simply different. And many arguments that tech is bad are centered around it being different. Writers saying that tech has lobotomized a generation are simply finding issues with teens spending more time online with their friends and less time outside, like they did. Back in the ‘80s, there were no online games, no ways to meet people on the net, and no social media. Times have changed dramatically, with tech keeping users inside and connected. Again, this is only a bad thing since it’s different.

One thing that may actually be evil is how large companies use and sell your personal data. Firefox, a popular web browser, recently added Facebook isolation support that blocks Facebook and other social media from using your online data and helps you limit your time spent browsing in response to recent evidence of Facebook tracking much more of users’ data than it said it did. “Delete Facebook” has been trending since, and many popular companies, such as Tesla, Playboy, and others have deleted their accounts. However, Facebook shouldn’t be singled out for privacy-centered choices. Many sites on the web sell users’ data, and protecting against them is a must. Experts agree that following simple precautions, such as using different passwords for all sites, not giving out data unless absolutely necessary, and using a tracker/ad blocker, can significantly reduce the high amount of leaks and unwarranted personal data uses on the web, but not all. Michal Kosinski, a researcher that made the news five years ago for finding that Facebook “likes” predict personality extremely accurately, argues that “the sooner we accept the fact that we essentially lost our privacy the sooner we can sit down and have a very important conversation which is how to make sure that this post privacy world is still a safe and habitable place to live.” In a recent paper, Kosinski analysed consumer ad targeting on social media, writing that he thinks people should know how they may be targeted. According to his research, ads powered by personal data performed up to 50% better than normal. When your data is sold to advertisers that can calculate exactly how to sell you a product, it is no longer worth it to use the platform. While tech itself is not evil, some tech companies and products are well deserving of the label.

Every single click, impression, and glance is pried from unsuspecting users by many large social companies--while the app may be free, the company that made it makes millions by selling confidential, personal info to advertisers. Like Kosinski said, there is not much we can do about it, except for a the consequences and trying to make changes for a better future, where your data is in control, but to do that, the information that websites know about each and every visitor needs to be exposed. An experiment set up by Robin Linus, a security-focused web developer, shows what data can be found without consent: fairly accurate location data, computer hardware and software versions (this might be used to exploit specific versions of browsers), which social media platforms are logged in, and what other devices are on the local network. In another example, a webpage has a form that asks for your name--when you autofill it, it also completes other information, such as phone number and even your full credit card number. When you click the submit button, it likes a Facebook page without your permission.

Large companies are making apps that are completely immoral--but is every employee at these technology companies (Amazon has 500,000 employees) ok with the way they treat their users? The answer is no. The atmosphere of these companies can burn great developers out, destroy morals in the face of cash, and keep programmers from building great apps that use data responsibly. “There are a lot of people that are working on technology that don’t even know about the intention behind the product they’re developing. And that’s particularly the case with, and always has been, with engineers,” notes Torben Friehe, a co-founder of the Good Technology Collective, a European forum that brings together “leading figures in tech from different disciplines . . . to offer counsel on the societal impact of new tech.” Friehe believes engineers and programmers working on new technology are too free to focus solely on their task at hand, without thinking about the larger consequences of their work. “[The] intention of the product is rarely influenced by the engineer,” Friehe believes. “The engineer receives directions and executes them, but we need to change that.” The problem is, many employees of large tech companies don’t have the financial option or the power to fight back against immoral practices in corporations. In many startups, managers and CEO’s high on money react vehemently to anything that challenges the companies’ ability to make money. Tech is well known for having some of the longest work hours and exceedingly high pressure to pledge devotion to their company and jobs above all else, and it becomes oh-so-easy to focus solely on their task, ignoring the moral issues.

This is the reality we live in: privacy concerns large companies don’t care about and data stealing by malwilling websites run amok, and while the tech behind it all is virtuous, corrupt developers and corporations are as evil as they come. People need to take a stand behind data privacy and addictive apps, and in the meantime, block the bad apps and stop blaming tech.