Ethical design, data privacy, equity, and accountability among themes at Common Sense conference.
Common Sense convened top technologists, researchers, educators, and public health experts recently at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, for the Designing for Our Future: Solutions for Digital Well-Being conference. Throughout the conference, more than 300 attendees heard about solutions around ethical design and data privacy and how the tech industry could innovate by creating products that prioritize privacy and well-being, especially for kids.
"We are here in Silicon Valley, the heart of tech and innovation, because we care about kids," said James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. "Our goal is that we all leave with a shared understanding and conviction that innovating with privacy and well-being is good for business, good for society, and necessary for our future."
Tristan Harris, former design ethicist and founder of the Center for Humane Technology, kicked off the conversation with Ellen Pao, founder of Project Include, by discussing tech companies and the attention economy. Referring to the race for attention as "human downgrading," Harris said that "after racing to the bottom of our brain stems to get and keep all our attention, tech now needs to race to the top and think about designing in ways that are best for society."
Common Sense Media launched its Digital Well-Being Initiative last year in Washington, D.C., after hearing from concerned parents and educators around the country about how media and technology are profoundly affecting kids and teens. Designing for Our Future: Solutions for Digital Well-Being was presented in two parts: the first in Washington, D.C., in April focused on legislative and regulatory solutions, and the second yesterday in Silicon Valley focused on industry solutions.
The sessions offered insights and solutions from some of the preeminent experts in tech, health, and digital well-being.
During a session on equity and tech, panelists discussed how to work with tech companies to ensure equity in communities that lack access. Shireen Santosham, chief innovation officer for the City of San Jose, sounded the alarm about the digital divide, even in Silicon Valley: "We need to figure out how to make tech enhance human potential, but if you don't have access, you are completely locked out … If we don't address equity issues now, we will leave folks behind and create a greater divide."
On a panel discussion about privacy, representatives from Mozilla, Desmos, Wikipedia, and Code.org addressed how companies can innovate on privacy as part of a good business practice that will ultimately strengthen brands.
Alicia Gray, senior manager for trust and privacy at Mozilla, said her company doesn't share any data for financial gain, while Eli Luberoff, founder and CEO of Desmos, discussed the tension among edtech developers between advancing student learning outcomes and designing to make a profit.
Craig Newmark from Craig Newmark Philanthropies and Tim Chang of Mayfield discussed the need to invest in ethical tech solutions. Chang said, "Technology used to be for other techies. Then it was for business. Now it's for every human being on the planet. When investing we need to be asking, 'Beyond revenue, should this technology even exist?''
On a panel on how to build better platforms, Leslie Miley, a technologist who has held engineering roles at Twitter and Slack, said, "Our personal data is currently in the hands of people who can't be trusted, and we're not getting it back. We need tech regulation now, because people are the product."
Attendees heard directly from digital natives, with teens from 826 National and Cam Kasky of March for Our Lives commenting on how tech and social media affect teens. Kasky said, "Teens think social media is real. They react to negativity very seriously. Yet when it comes to what they are putting out there, they consider it a toy. It's a paradox." The teens added stories about their experiences with technology, many of which also appear in a new book collaboration from Common Sense and 826 National: True Connections: Teen-to-Teen Advice About Social Media and the Digital World is a collection of first-person essays written by teens about growing up as digital natives.
The conference wrapped up with a discussion on quality content with Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who cautioned parents not to use digital media to keep kids occupied or distract them during moments of distress or boredom but instead to "help kids address the problem and manage that emotion."