Former Techies Find New Work as Technology Detox Activists

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A boy makes faces while testing out the Animoji feature on an iPhone X at the Apple Store in San Francisco's Union Square on Nov. 3, 2017, in San Francisco. (ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP/Getty Images))

Phone addiction has become a full-on crisis, with detox camps and phone apps designed to disconnect us from around-the-clock technology. Former techies are jumping into the mix, too, crafting encore careers as technology activists urging Silicon Valley companies to make their products less addictive.

Among the growing list of "thought leaders" is the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology. On Tuesday, co-founder and director Tristan Harris shared his new agenda with journalists and supporters.

“Instead of saying, let's just compete for attention, let’s change the currency,” the ex-Googler said. "Let's make the currency something closer to Time Well Spent."

The Time Well Spent movement is one Harris helped to lead. It urged tech companies to consider how addictive technologies might impact people's day-to-day lives.

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While Harris was vague about how he plans to move from thought to action in this latest endeavor, the Center for Humane Technology did release a new design kit to help tech companies better understand how a user's emotional state — and ability to pay attention — might be impacted by new products.

In an interview, Harris said consumers need to rethink the current “free” business model of the tech industry.

“We’re getting free social isolation, free downgrading of attention spans … free is the most expensive business model we’ve ever created,” he said. He suggested that if users were willing to pay for social media subscriptions, companies might be encouraged to compete for something other than their attention.

In Mendocino, a different type of tech activism is underway at a digital detox facility called Camp Grounded. There, tech refugees trade in their cellphones and computers in exchange for activities like archery, crochet, and, "laughter yoga."

Awaiting them when they return are a whole host of new self-control products and features meant to limit screen time. StayFocusd and Freedom stop people from accessing "time-wasting websites" after a specified amount of daily use, while Mindful Browsing gently urges people to do something more productive if they try to open, say, a social media app.

But is this tech detox helping?

In a Pew Research Center survey last year,  54% of teenagers in the U.S. said they spend too much time in front of screens, but researchers noted that didn't mean they tried to limit their time on them: "There is little association between teens’ views of how much time they spend on various screens and whether or not they have tried to limit their time on those devices."

Despite the allure of digital detox, it's unclear whether giving up one's phone for a weekend or checking how much time is spent online affects our use of technology moving forward.

Outside the tech industry, skeptical voices have emerged.

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In an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, writer Grafton Tanner voiced doubt that the answer to tech addiction could be found from within the tech industry itself.

"Their solutions — designing ethical technologies and creating labor unions for the digital age — completely ignore the fact that technology has never succeeded in achieving utopia and probably never will," he wrote.

Stanford University lecturer Jenny Odell, author of the new book "How to Do Nothing," said she thinks the Center for Humane Technology is still trapped in the mindset that human lives are like products — ones that can be optimized.

"I feel like things like Time Well Spent — while they very well may free up time for someone and that probably would be helpful for them — doesn’t touch assumptions like time is money, and doesn’t touch the idea that a life can be optimized," Odell said.

Odell urges people to be more present to the world around them as a replacement for the allure of their screens.

"It's no longer about putting the phone down," she said. "I'm just more interested in something else that happens to be right in front of me. There's so much detail in physical reality — there's just so much to look at."

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