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.
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: Well, there's a really common misconception that technology is neutral and it's up to us to just choose how to use it.
And so we're sitting there and we're scrolling and we find ourselves in this kind of wormhole and then we say, “Oh man, like, I should really have more self-control." And that's partially true, but what we forget when we talk about it that way is that there's a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen whose job it was to get my finger to do that the next time. And there's this whole playbook of techniques that they use to get us to keep using the software more.
Was design always this manipulative? It wasn't always this way. In fact, back in the 1970s and the early '80s at Xerox PARC when Steve Jobs first went over and saw the graphical user interface, the way people talked about computers and what computers were supposed to be was a “bicycle for our minds” that, here we are, you take a human being and they have a certain set of capacities and capabilities, and then you give them a bicycle and they can go to all these new distances, they're empowered to go to these brand-new places and to do these new things, to have these new capacities.
And that's always been the philosophy of people who make technology: how do we create bicycles for our minds to do and empower us to feel and access more?
Now, when the first iPhone was introduced it was also the philosophy of the technology; how do we empower people to do something more? And in those days it wasn't manipulative because there was no competition for attention. Photoshop wasn't trying to maximize how much attention it took from you—it didn't measure its success that way.
And the Internet overall had been, in the very beginning, not designed to maximize attention, it was just putting things out there, putting things out there, creating these message boards.
It wasn't designed with this whole persuasive psychology that emerged later. What happened is that the attention economy and this race for attention got more and more competitive, and the more competitive it got to get people's attention on, let's say a news website, the more they need to add these design principles, these more manipulative design tactics as ways of holding onto your attention.
And so YouTube goes from being a more neutral, honest tool of just, “Here's a video,” to, “Oh, do you want to see these other videos? And do you want to auto-play the next video? And here's some notifications…”
These products start to look and feel more like media that's about maximizing consumption and less like bicycles for our minds.
And I think that's such a subtle an important thing to recognize, is that more and more of technology is really not on our team to help us spend our time the way we want to, it's more on the team of maximizing how much time we spend on the screen.
Right now, the only way to succeed in the app store is by proving you're really good at getting people's attention. And so by making attention the currency of success it forces all of these good-hearted, good-intentioned people who make apps or make media sites, to do things they don't want to do just because they have to get attention. You have mediation apps that have to send you all thee notifications and add streaks and do all this game-y stuff just to get you to use it the most, as opposed to having the phone itself recognize that there's parts of your life where mediation might want to be at the top of the list for you, because you're defining that, and so that meditation app could win for the right reasons, not for the wrong reasons.
So we always worry about new technologies when they first appear. When people started bringing out the newspapers on the subway people worried, “Oh my god, people are going to stop talking to each other on the subway!” And then TV showed up and people worried, “Oh my god, people are going to spend all this time at home!” And the radio—we always worry, and then somehow it seems to turn out okay. Back in the 1970s people were at home on the telephone and calling each other all the time, we thought, “Oh the kids these days, what are they doing to their minds?” So now it's tempting to say, “Well now the kids these days they're on Snapchat, and therefore we survived all those other technology transitions, nothing really bad happened, so maybe it's all okay, this is just kids being kids in a new way.” And I want to talk about why that's not true and why this is different.
What's different is that, let's say—let's take that telephone example: in the 1970s if someone picked up a telephone to go call their friend and they spent time gossiping on the telephone, we could do that, that's fine. But the telephone wasn't updated every day with new manipulative design principles to be better and better at seducing you into calling your friends.
So what's different with Snapchat is that there are a thousand engineers every single day who work on the product to actually find new ways not to just get you to use it but to kind of tap you both on the shoulder and try to get you into a reciprocity relationship where you owe someone else a response. In fact they have a feature in Snapchat called Snapstreaks. And Snapstreaks count the number of days in a row you've sent a message back-and-forth with someone. So if I have a best friend and we've been chatting every day for a hundred days I see a little fireball and the number 100 next to it. And what that does is, they've just created something now I don't want to lose because I have a streak going, I've got a hundred days and now if I don't send them a message tomorrow I'm going to lose the whole thing.
And when you're a kid actually this has a really big impact on you. I'm not making this up. There's a woman named Emily Weinstein at Harvard who studied the effects of Snapchat and Snapstreaks on kids by accident—it emerged in her interviews.
And she found out that kids, when they go on vacation they have to give their password to up to five other friends to actually have them send messages while they're gone on vacation because they're so worried about losing their Snapstreaks. In fact a lot of kids, they wake up and they see these 30 contacts with different streaks and they have to just take pictures of floors and ceilings just to kind of get through all these Snapstreaks so they don't lose any of them.
So we have to ask, when Snapchat is designing a feature like Snapstreaks, are they doing that because they most want to help kids empower them to live their lives or are they doing that because it's really good at getting their attention?
And when we're parents and we see kids using it this way we have to recognize there's something very different going on here. This was not true in the 1970s when we had a neutral telephone that we would choose to use when we wanted to use it. There are now a thousand people behind our new telephone, which is say, Snapchat, that's being designed and updated every day to be more compelling at addicting and holding onto people's attention. And it's not good for us.
I think we can all feel it. We become more and more on the treadmill to the number of likes or feedback we get, basically, from social media and start tying our own approval, our own self-worth to how much attention we get from other people. I mean, even for me I notice that if I post something it does affect me whether or not I have a lot of likes or few likes.
And it's hard to really, if you think about it and get to the sense of, “My self-worth is completely independent of that.” That's a subtle thing to hold and developmentally, children are more vulnerable to their self-worth being externalized like this.
And the problem is that there's always been, as well, ways of externalizing our self-worth in terms of how much money we have in our bank account or in terms of how many friends we have, but now the externalization of our self-worth is controlled by a handful of companies whose goals are different than our goals.
They're not evil companies, they just have the different goal of maximizing attention, and our goals are not that. But the problem is that their goals become our goals. This is what's actually so dangerous, is that their goals of engaging us the most by having us care about likes become our goals. We actually wake up in the morning as a sovereign human beings and we start caring about the number of likes we got, as if that's our goal in life. That becomes our goal. And it's as if we've been infected, it's as if they've drilled a hole in the back of our head and now they've injected the virus and now we walk around searching for feedback using social media. And they won, if that happens.
And again, it's not because they're evil but they're in a different game, they're trying to maximize attention. But we have to ask a much deeper question, which is: what do we want in our lives and what is our self-worth actually tied to? And maybe it's being virtuous or being a good friend or caring about what matters or living by our values.
There's a whole bunch of things that we can define for ourselves, and I think the less people have to find their own values the more vulnerable they are to someone else coming in and giving them their values. And to fix that we're going to need to talk about different kinds of metrics, different ways of measuring success and monetizing success. So instead of making more money the more time we get, we instead make more money the more we've helped you in your life.
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.
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Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.