Silicon Valley Says Step Away From the Device

Matt Richtel, New York Times
Emma Innocenti | Getty Images

Stuart Crabb, a director in the executive offices of Facebook, naturally likes to extol the extraordinary benefits of computers and smartphones. But like a growing number of technology leaders, he offers a warning: log off once in a while, and put them down.

In a place where technology is seen as an all-powerful answer, it is increasingly being seen as too powerful, even addictive.

The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.

“If you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it’ll boil to death — it’s a nice analogy,” said Mr. Crabb, who oversees learning and development at Facebook. People “need to notice the effect that time online has on your performance and relationships.”

The insight may not sound revelatory to anyone who has joked about the “crackberry” lifestyle or followed the work of researchers who are exploring whether interactive technology has addictive properties.

But hearing it from leaders at many of Silicon Valley’s most influential companies, who profit from people spending more time online, can sound like auto executives selling muscle cars while warning about the dangers of fast acceleration.

“We’re done with this honeymoon phase and now we’re in this phase that says, ‘Wow, what have we done?’ ” said Soren Gordhamer, who organizes Wisdom 2.0, an annual conference he started in 2010 about the pursuit of balance in the digital age. “It doesn’t mean what we’ve done is bad. There’s no blame. But there is a turning of the page.”

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference in February, founders from Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Zynga and PayPal, and executives and managers from companies like Google , Microsoft, Cisco and others listened to or participated in conversations with experts in yoga and mindfulness. In at least one session, they debated whether technology firms had a responsibility to consider their collective power to lure consumers to games or activities that waste time or distract them.

The actual science of whether such games and apps are addictive is embryonic. But the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, widely viewed as the authority on mental illnesses, plans next year to include “Internet use disorder” in its appendix, an indication researchers believe something is going on but that requires further study to be deemed an official condition.

Some people disagree there is a problem, even if they agree that the online activities tap into deep neurological mechanisms. Eric Schiermeyer, a co-founder of Zynga, an online game company and maker of huge hits like FarmVille, has said he has helped addict millions of people to dopamine, a neurochemical that has been shown to be released by pleasurable activities, including video game playing, but also is understood to play a major role in the cycle of addiction.

But what he said he believed was that people already craved dopamine and that Silicon Valley was no more responsible for creating irresistible technologies than, say, fast-food restaurants were responsible for making food with such wide appeal.

“They’d say: ‘Do we have any responsibility for the fact people are getting fat?’ Most people would say ‘no,’ ” said Mr. Schiermeyer. He added: “Given that we’re human, we already want dopamine.”

Along those lines, Scott Kriens, chairman of Juniper Networks, one of the biggest Internet infrastructure companies, said the powerful lure of devices mostly reflected primitive human longings to connect and interact, but that those desires needed to be managed so they did not overwhelm people’s lives.

“The responsibility we have is to put the most powerful capability into the world,” he said. “We do it with eyes wide open that some harm will be done. Someone might say, ‘Why not do so in a way that causes no harm?’ That’s naïve.”

“The alternative is to put less powerful capability in people’s hands and that’s a bad trade-off,” he added.

Mr. Crabb, the Facebook executive, said his primary concern was that people live balanced lives. At the same time, he acknowledges that the message can run counter to Facebook’s business model, which encourages people to spend more time online. “I see the paradox,” he said.

The emerging conversation reflects a broader effort in the valley to offer counterweights to the fast-paced lifestyle. Many tech firms are teaching meditation and breathing exercises to their staff members to help them slow down and disconnect.

At Cisco, Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy officer and its former head of engineering, a position where she oversaw 22,000 employees, said she regularly told people to take a break and a deep breath, and did so herself. She meditates every night and takes Saturday to paint and write poetry, turning off her phone or leaving it in the other room.

“It’s almost like a reboot for your brain and your soul,” she said. She added of her Saturday morning digital detox: “It makes me so much calmer when I’m responding to e-mails later.”

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who lectures about the science of self-control at the Stanford School of Medicine (and has been invited to lecture at the business school at Stanford), said she regularly talked with leaders at technology companies about these issues. She added that she was impressed that they had been open to discussing a potential downside of their innovations. “The people who are running these companies deeply want their technology and devices to enhance lives,” said Dr. McGonigal. “But they’re becoming aware of people’s inability to disengage.”

She also said she believed that interactive gadgets could create a persistent sense of emergency by setting off stress systems in the brain — a view that she said was becoming more widely accepted.

“It’s this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices,” she said. “People feel not just addicted, but trapped.”

Michelle Gale, who recently left her post as the head of learning and development at Twitter, said she regularly coached engineers and executives at the company that their gadgets had addictive properties.

“They said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ Or, ‘I guess I knew that but I don’t know what to do about it,’ ” recalled Ms. Gale, who regularly organized meditation and improvisation classes at Twitter to encourage people to let their minds wander.

Google has started a “mindfulness” movement at the company to teach employees self-awareness and to improve their ability to focus. Richard Fernandez, an executive coach at Google and one of the leaders of the mindfulness movement, said the risks of being overly engaged with devices were immense.

“It’s nothing less than everything,” he said, adding that if people can find time to occasionally disconnect, “we can have more intimate and authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love in our communities.”

Google, which owns YouTube, earns more ad revenue as people stay online longer. But Mr. Fernandez, echoing others in Silicon Valley, said they were not in business to push people into destructive behavior.

“Consumers need to have an internal compass where they’re able to balance the capabilities that technology offers them for work, for search, with the qualities of the lives they live offline,” he said.

“It’s about creating space, because otherwise we can be swept away by our technologies.” RY