The hub of the new tech humanism is the Center for Humane Technology in San Francisco. Founded earlier this year, the nonprofit has assembled an impressive roster of advisers, including investor Roger McNamee, Lyft president John Zimmer, and Rosenstein. But its most prominent spokesman is executive director Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google who has been hailed by the Atlantic magazine as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”. Harris has spent years trying to persuade the industry of the dangers of tech addiction. In February, Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay, launched a related initiative: the Tech and Society Solutions Lab, which aims to “maximise the tech industry’s contributions to a healthy society”.
As suspicion of Silicon Valley grows, the tech humanists are making a bid to become tech’s loyal opposition. They are using their insider credentials to promote a particular diagnosis of where tech went wrong and of how to get it back on track. For this, they have been getting a lot of attention. As the backlash against tech has grown, so too has the appeal of techies repenting for their sins. The Center for Humane Technology has been profiled – and praised by – the New York Times, the Atlantic, Wired and others.
But tech humanism’s influence cannot be measured solely by the positive media coverage it has received. The real reason tech humanism matters is because some of the most powerful people in the industry are starting to speak its idiom. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel has warned about social media’s role in encouraging “mindless scrambles for friends or unworthy distractions”, and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey recently claimed he wants to improve the platform’s “conversational health”.