Big Tech: the newest ‘Big’ on the block
April 1st 2019, 21:31
The health geeks among us will be very familiar with the terms Big Pharma, Big Food and Big Ag. For many, when we use these terms, we are not dismissing all parts of the industries that produce licensed pharmaceuticals, the foods on our supermarket shelves or the agricultural products that many of us rely on.
What the terms highlight are those elements of each of these business models that work against the public interest or the environment, on which we are ultimately dependent.
A succession of exposés has shown just what elements within these industries are capable of. Big Pharma has had to contend with whistleblowers like Dr Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who wrote The Truth about the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do about It (2005, Random House).
Then there's Dr Peter Gøtzsche, one of the founders of the prestigious Cochrane Group, who told all in his book Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime (2013, CRC Press). Five years later, he was expelled from the organization that he'd helped build. The last straw was probably his criticism of Cochrane's own review on the safety (or otherwise) of the HPV vaccine that is now being meted out to adolescent girls and boys around the globe.
Big Food has had no end of critics, particularly those targeting its covert research on how to maximize the 'bliss point' to get people hooked on its ultra-processed, nutritionally toxic, disease-causing products. Fat Chance: the Hidden Truth about Sugar, Obesity and Disease (2012, HarperCollins) by Dr Robert Lustig was one of many books that got the ball rolling.
My favorite exposé of Big Ag in relation to genetically modified foods is GMO Myths and Truths by Claire Robinson and molecular biologists John Fagan PhD and Michael Antoniou PhD. It's now in its fourth edition (Earth Open Source, 2018) and available as a download from www.earthopensource.org.
The new 'Big' industry threatening our wellbeing is Big Tech. It's becoming ever clearer that the human brain is not designed to put up with the level of distraction we face in modern-day workplaces and society.
As US academics Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen point out in their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (2017, MIT Press), an ever-larger number of young people fail to successfully complete major, complex tasks—at least on time.
That's down to the frequent distractions caused by incoming emails, social media messages and other digital sources with which they've grown up. It also puts them under a great deal of stress and contributes to rising rates of mental health issues and even suicides among adolescents.
Is this digital assault of our own making? Or are there players behind the scenes who are exploiting our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for the sake of their profits? As with medicines and food made by large corporations, not all tech is bad.
For example, researchers at Cambridge University have developed an app called Decoder specifically to activate the brain, especially the frontoparietal network that's indispensable for complex tasks. But, sadly, Big Tech is definitely up to no good in some areas.
There's a strong parallel with Big Food's exploitation of the 'bliss point' that plays on the ancient opioid reward systems in the brain—it makes those foods very hard to steer away from, especially when they're staring at us on every street corner or service station.
Or our desire for a medical silver bullet—a 'pill for an ill.' That's what millions want when they go to see their doctor—despite knowing on some level that their complaint isn't going to magically disappear the minute they pop the pill.
Living systems avoid chaos by employing feedback loops, and human society is no different. Now that it's becoming obvious we can't allow the next generation to grow up with completely unchecked technology, detractors are coming forward.
Leading the charge is a group of ex-Google and Silicon Valley counterrevolutionaries, under the leadership of Tristan Harris. Through Harris' Time Well Spent campaign and his non-profit Center for Human Technology, they're forcing Big Tech to do something to curb their ways—for our benefit.
Big Tech's flawed business model is now out in the open. All the big social media players like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google are competing for our finite attention—24/7.
These platforms turn conversations into streaks, glorify picture-perfect lives, segregate us into 'echo chambers' and tease us into watching the next autoplay video instead of spending time with our loved ones.
Thank goodness the critical spotlight is now on Big Tech. Let's help others to see what we see—and especially to help the youngest and most vulnerable with digital addiction. It's history repeating itself, and it behooves us to put into practice what we learned in countering the exploitation of the other 'Bigs.'
And let's do it quickly, so the new Big on the block doesn't destroy the fabric of society that is, after all, what makes us human.