Apple shareholder initiative steps up pressure on tech giants

Two Apple shareholders are urging the company to take action around digital impact on children, it was widely reported today. This is the latest in a long string of media reports  showing increasing pressure on tech giants to take more responsibility for the negative impact of their services. The fact that it comes from shareholders means it has the potential to finally start moving the issue forward.

Prominent Silicon Valley designers and leaders such as Apple’s own Jonny Ive are already well aware of the potential risks of digital addiction. They restrict digital use for their own children, as we’ve discussed on these pages previously. Many send their children to a non-tech Waldorf school.  Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has publicly made comments illustrating his concerns around how digital affects presence. Very little action on the matter has been evident from either organisation, however.

In an open letter, Apple shareholders, Jana Partners LLC and California State Teachers Retirement System, are making a number of requests. They would like the company to convene an expert committee, which can study and monitor developments and with which Apple can partner to carry out research into the effect of digital on children. In parallel, they are asking the company to have a senior executive monitoring the issue, presenting reports along the same lines as Apple does for environmental issues. Specifically, they are arguing for Apple to launch parental controls that are less binary (all-or-nothing) than what the company currently provides  – and to provide education for parents about these.

They argue that it will benefit Apple to address this issue – pointing out that ‘it is both good business and the right thing to do’. It is a great move towards considering this as an issue of corporate responsibility at the heart of a tech organisation.

Concerned voices from those previously employed by tech giants have multiplied in recent months. Tristan Harris, the ex-Google executive whose brilliant initiative, Time Well Spent, focused on the fact that digital design is based on problematic principles, is getting increased attention. His arguments around how digital services are designed to be addictive have been boosted by comments from perhaps unexpected quarters: Former Facebook executives Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya, who both stated that the social media network is designed to deliver addictive dopamine hits, with potentially dire consequences.

And herein lies the rub. Profits in the digital industry are driven by frequency and length of use. The core issue is the one raised by Harris: Design needs to be focused around taking care of the human, not solely on driving usage at any cost. With digital services now playing such a major part in our lives, it is becoming urgent to consider this fundamental principle.

In this context, the idea of further research and monitoring is a good step. Some research has been carried out in this area – and the shareholders’ letter quotes some findings – but more insight is welcome. Many academics argue there is a problem, but others disagree. We need clarity on exactly where the problems lie and how they can be managed – and not just for children.

Parental controls may be a decent tool for managing use, but often they are no match for digitally savvy children and teens. Further, it leaves behind children whose parents for one or other reason don’t worry about putting the controls in place. The Apple shareholder initiative is a brilliant step forward, but the question is whether it will go to the heart of the matter.

The solution, ultimately, is not restriction and controls, but the provision of services that are designed around the human to begin with. We need services that serve us, not ones that aim to control our behaviour.

This isn’t an easy demand to comply with for companies whose profits are closely linked to the usage levels of their services. The use of the word ‘addiction’ around digital services is contentious – but there is little doubt that many services are designed to keep us hooked.

Like other industries where overuse or addiction is an issue – tobacco, alcohol, gambling – the digital industry has a responsibility to consider not just the good, but also the harm that its services can cause. At Thrive with Digital, we would very much like to see that happen – because digital has so much to give that is positive. We shouldn’t risk any of those positives by ignoring the negatives and fuel a backlash.

The request by these Apple shareholders is a brilliant step forward. Ultimately, money – and investors – tend to be where power lies. Perhaps the final straw that fuels action will be consumers voting with their wallets. Many are acknowledging some level of addiction to their screens and devices, and there is increasing discomfort with how this affects us. Offering an experience where people can feel more in control of their digital lives could fuel the next wave of consumer demand. As the shareholders argue, taking this issue seriously could be very good for business.


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