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 can't seem to resist frequent rewards, which is why slot machines and social media are both so addictive. What's more, they're designed that way, purposefully, to keep you coming back.
Casinos, magicians, and the makers of social media platforms all know something about you: your mind is very vulnerable to influence. Just as the magician relies on limitations in your short term memory or visual acuity to accomplish sleight of hand, online software engineers leverage the limits of your mind to make their product addictive. From the sonorous ping of mobile phones to Facebook's highly nuanced algorithm, product makers understand that frequent reward is what keeps you coming back. And just like slot machines, the easier those rewards are to access, the more frequently we'll want them.
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.
Tristan Harris is a design thinker, philosopher and entrepreneur.
Called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” by The Atlantic magazine, Tristan Harris was a Design Ethicist at Google and is now a leader in Time Well Spent, a movement to align technology with our humanity. Time Well Spent aims to heighten consumer awareness about how technology shapes our minds, empower consumers with better ways to use technology and change business incentives and design practices to align with humanity’s best interest.
Tristan is an avid researcher of what influences human behavior, beliefs and interpersonal dynamics, drawing on insights from sleight of hand magic and hypnosis to cults and behavioral economics. Currently he is developing a framework for ethical influence, especially as it relates to the moral responsibility of technology companies.
His work has been featured on PBS NewsHour, The Atlantic Magazine, ReCode, TED, 1843 Economist Magazine, Wired, NYTimes, Der Spiegel, NY Review of Books, Rue89 and more.
Previously, Tristan was CEO of Apture, which Google acquired in 2011. Apture enabled millions of users to get instant, on-the-fly explanations across a publisher network of a billion page views per month.
Tristan holds several patents from his work at Apple, Wikia, Apture and Google. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Computer Science, focused on Human Computer Interaction, while dabbling in behavioral economics, social psychology, behavior change and habit formation in Professor BJ Fogg’s Stanford Persuasive Technology lab. He was rated #16 in Inc Magazine’s Top 30 Entrepreneurs Under 30 in 2009.
You can read his most popular essay: How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds – from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.