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?
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.
Tristan Harris: So why should someone who's in the business of getting someone's attention—why should somebody who runs a business that's all about getting attention, why should they switch to being in the business of helping people?
Well, for one, it's going to be hard to do that until consumers actually demand that that's what they want. We all need to recognize as citizens of humanity, as just being human, that this world that's constantly fighting to grab our attention doesn't serve any of us. It's polluting our inner and our social lives.
And once we recognize that we don't want that as consumers, that will enable businesses to follow consumer demand and say: we want to provide something whose goals are entirely in alignment with your goals, where we measure our success in terms of the net positive benefits that we delivered in people's lives, and we charged more like a subscription model or a payment model rather than advertising where we have an infinite appetite in stealing as much of your attention as possible.
So, when we check our phones 150 times a day, which is the average, are those 150 conscious moments where we're sitting here and then we think and then we choose: “Now I'm going to check my phone”? Or does it just happen to us?
And I think one thing that we don't talk about with the attention economy, what's different about the attention economy versus a normal marketing-product-goods economy, is that in a regular economy people make a conscious choice (theoretically) about the products that they choose to buy or the places I choose to go to. I have to get into a car and go there.
In the attention economy I don't choose where my attention goes; I choose kind of in the moments in between, but a lot of my attention can be steered. This is what magicians do, I mean they do a trick by steering your attention, by focusing your attention over here. So what's different about the attention economy is we have less choice about where our attention goes. It can be steered and manipulated much more easily than the conscious-choice-buying economy where I'm choosing to buy a good.
So why are we checking our phones 150 times a day? Why is this so compelling? Well, it's because at any given moment in life when I'm left with the discomfort of being with myself or if reality gets just a little bit boring for just a moment, if you have just a break, you walk into a cafe and there's a line before you order, what do we do? Why do we pull out our phones in that moment?
In a world where this increasingly gives you access to anything that you want at any given moment or the ability to get back to those ten emails or the ability to watch that video you've been meaning to watch, why would you not turn to your phone in that free moment?
So we have to reckon with a world in which next door to my current moment to moment experience of reality there's this immediately sweeter better choice. And if that's true for every human being walking around, we just put a better choice on life's menu in your pocket that at any moment you could switch to, suddenly the world is going to look a lot like it does today, where everyone is down in their phones.
And the point isn't that suddenly we're distracted or something like that. We really have to get intimate with why is this happening? And the reason it's happening is because it's more compelling than simply being with the discomfort of reality as it is, which is going to force us to ask some really deep questions with ourselves of: if we were to not live that way, if we were to live not looking at our phone in a free moment in time, would we be willing to deal with sometimes being a little bit uncomfortable or being a little bit bored?
And when we make that choice we don't just make that alone because imagine that person who meditates in the morning and suddenly says, "I'm not going to look at my phone today," and so they land in that line in the cafe and they don't look at their phone and they're kind of looking around smiling but suddenly everyone around them is still on their phone. And what we realize is that it's sort of like a weekend isn't just for us, it's about being at a weekend together. If we don't look at our phone we don't just want to not look at our phone by ourselves, we'd want to actually be able to connect together. And when we're connecting with other people it makes reality as sweet actually as the things that our phone provides.
Because the whole point is when you're in connection with someone else, that actually is more compelling than being with our phones. But when you're just by yourself sorting for 'what's going to be the most stimulating or productive or entertaining way for me to be right now?', often times our phone we will beat out other choices that are appearing before us.
And it's only when we are with other people and we’re in connection or conversation with someone else that that actually is better than often these individual choices we can get on a phone—because we actually do desire connection more than that.
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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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
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