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Silicon Valley Says Step Away From the Device

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.
n 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.

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