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How Google got religion about smartphone addiction

Watching this week's keynote at Google I/O, with its surprise focus on features inspired by the Time
May 10 · Issue #134 · View online
The Interface
Watching this week’s keynote at Google I/O, with its surprise focus on features inspired by the Time Well Spent debate, I wondered where they came from. After doing some reporting, one document stood out: an internal presentation about distraction that went viral inside the company in 2013.
The presentation was titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” and it called on Google to help people spend less time glued to their screens. “Change like this can only happen top-down, from large institutions that define the standards for millions of people,” the author wrote. “And we’re in a great position to do something about all this.”
The author, of course, was Tristan Harris, who would later become a design ethicist at the company before leaving to found the organization now known at the Center for Humane Technology. The Verge published the presentation today for the first time in its entirety, and I interviewed Harris and other current and former Googlers about the impact the presentation had then and now. 
In the short run, little happened. But amid growing fears over smartphone addiction, ideas first floated in 2013 have now made their way into Android. It feels like a significant turning point for the industry. I write in my piece today:
Google’s moves this week could lead companies like Facebook to follow, I write in my piece. “This will put pressure on all these other companies to get on the same path,” Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee who recently joined the Center for Humane Technology, told me. “Google should be commended for being the first.”
It remains to be seen what companies follow Google in building features designed to let users reclaim their time. (Apple, which put up its own site promoting smartphone controls for your family in March, is perhaps the likeliest candidate.) The basic ideas have been kicking around inside tech companies for years — they just had to wait for the moment to catch up to them.
“Up until now, the tech’s industry attitude has been ‘Have a problem? It’s your responsibility to use it differently,’” Harris told me. “Now it’s ‘it’s our responsibility to design technology in a way that cares about people first.’ Whether the issues are fake news, mental health, loneliness, or addiction, this moment marks that a tide is turning.”

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