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.
We've made it through every new technological wave—newspapers, radio, TV, laptops, cell phones—without the social decay that was widely prophesied, but there's something different about smartphones loaded with apps living in the palm of our hand, says tech ethicist Tristan Harris. It would be a mistake not to recognize how, this time, it really is different. Companies today are not more evil than they were in the 1970s, what's changed is the environment they operate in: the attention economy, where the currency is your eyeballs on their product, for as long as possible—precious exposure that can be sold to advertisers. Unlike the neutral technology we once used, and could walk away from, today's technology uses us. Behind every app—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat—are 1,000 software designers working every day to update and find new psychological levers to keep you hooked to this product. The most powerful development has been that of 'likes', public feedback that externalized our self-worth onto a score card (this has reached new heights with Snapchat's streaks, which research by Emily Weinstein at Harvard has shown puts extreme stress on kids and adolescents.) "These products start to look and feel more like media that's about maximizing consumption and less like bicycles for our minds," says Harris. Is it too late to do something about the attention economy? To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to tristanharris.com.
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.