Heads down, phones out: The death of free time and free will

Why do you check your phone 150 times a day? Is it a conscious choice, or have the attention merchants gotten into your head?

Do you really have sovereignty over own your mind anymore? Tristan Harris, a design thinker and former ethicist at Google, points to how smart phones changed our contract with advertisers, and our relationship with reality. Rather than being presented with choices as a consumer, software engineers at companies like Facebook leverage deep psychology to make their products addictive. The longer and more often sites and apps can hold your attention, the more they can make in advertising revenue. This is the attention economy—and it's why the average person checks their phone 150 times each day. It's also why Facebook is a free service—'if you're not paying for the product, you are the product,' as the saying goes. Harris explains that the constant tug-of-war on our attention won't end until consumers demand it: we have to ask for a subscription model. In the meantime, consumers can empower themselves by resisting the lure of these psychological hooks. If you walk into a cafe and there's a queue, don't look for the reality escape hatch that is your phone. Spend some time in your own thoughts. Exercise your willpower. Technology is a wonderful thing, but mindfulness, conscious choices, and real-world connection are all too easy to lose in the attention economy. To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to tristanharris.com.

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Reclaim Reality, Relationships, and Your Attention Span from Your Devices

Your future happiness and success will depend on the double-edged sword of embracing new technology to stay connected, and being smart enough to unplug at the right time.

There is a psychological self-deception called the end-of-history illusion, which refers to the feeling that—no matter where you are in the evolution of technology—your time seems incredibly advanced. However Adam Alter reminds us that the trajectory of progress keeps rising, and what we think is cutting-edge now—Snapchat, Facebook, the iPhone 8, the iPhone 12—will in ten years will seem laughably primitive. It's what we'll have in this new world that concerns Alter. He cites experts who predict that most of us will own VR goggles in the next 5 years, and if the success of clickbait and its irresistible effect on our psychology is any indication, the fully immersive alternative realities of VR will shake the foundations of our minds, relationships, and attention spans (which are already kaput). As we're lured into a life on the digital plain by corporations—who make money from every second they can capture our attention—virtual reality may threaten reality itself. Those of us who have known a life without it will have an slight advantage in managing its control over our behavior, but Alter raises concerns for children won't come at this technology pre-equipped and skeptical enough to see the intentions behind such lures—and what might be lost if we don't know how to disconnect. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

Good Journalism Is Like a Science: It Tries to Disprove Its Hypotheses

What happens to a nation that only reads headlines? They get journalists who chase clicks, rather than facts.

What is good journalism? For one thing, says PR strategist Matthew Hiltzik, it's responsible and it doesn't play into our cravings for instant gratification. When Hiltzik visited our video studio, he remarked that attention has become the currency of the digital publishing world. In order to keep site traffic peaking, some sites may prioritize the quantity of stories being published over their quality. The side effect? Reader fatigue. "I think that there's less of an understanding in the media about how damaging that potentially can be when they're dealing with serious subjects. Because they talk about them too many times. The minutia of every single tree being discussed instead of the actual impact of the forest can actually be very damaging," says Hiltzik.

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Social Media's Dark Side: How Connectivity Uprooted Our Self-Worth

We used to use technology. Now technology uses us. Silicon Valley ethicist Tristan Harris explains how the attention economy hijacked our self-worth for profit.

In the 1970s, at the dawn of personal computers, people like Steve Jobs and the scientists at Xerox PARC talked about computers as "bicycles for our mind". Sure, someone was going to make big money selling these hardware units, but the intention was at heart quite pure; computers would give our minds wheels to go farther than ever before. Our capabilities would be augmented by technology, and we would become smarter and more capable. That ethos has not really stuck, and today we find ourselves in a Pavlovian relationship with push notifications, incapacitated by the multi-directional pull on our attention spans.

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The Eyeball Economy: How Advertising Co-Opts Independent Thought

In what Tristan Harris calls a "race to the bottom of the brain stem," media companies and advertisers will do almost anything to keep your eyes locked where they want them.

Attention is a limited resource. There's just 24 hours per human per day, and every advertiser wants it. The attention economy has always existed—penny papers competed with each other the same way streaming services do now—but today we feel it so much more because our devices are no longer plugged into walls; we can take them with us, to have entertainment and knowledge wherever we go. But if only it were just those two things. Tristan Harris, a design thinker and former ethicist at Google, explains how advertising has become increasingly persuasive and tailored in the age of big data. Companies sell users' attention and personal information to the highest bidder, who uses it to manipulate thoughts and beliefs—be it about products or politics—with very little transparency. This critically undermines our free will and democracy. "So many of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas," Harris says. It's time to start rigorously questioning advertising's business model, and reorganize the attention economy to align with public wellbeing. To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to tristanharris.com.