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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The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
- One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.
How to deal with "epistemic exhaustion."
A recent study tested how well the fungi species Cladosporium sphaerospermum blocked cosmic radiation aboard the International Space Station.
- Radiation is one of the biggest threats to astronauts' safety during long-term missions.
- C. sphaerospermum is known to thrive in high-radiation environments through a process called radiosynthesis.
- The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus could serve as an effective shield against cosmic radiation for astronauts.
Shunk et al.<p>Additionally, the fungus is self-replicating, meaning astronauts would potentially be able to "grow" new radiation shielding on deep-space missions, instead of having to rely on a costly and complicated interplanetary supply chain.</p><p>Still, the researchers weren't sure whether <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would survive on the space station. Nils J.H. Averesch, a co-author of the <a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.16.205534v1.full.pdf" target="_blank">study published on the preprint server bioRxiv</a>, told <a href="https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/fungus-that-eats-radiation-could-be-cosmic-ray-shield" target="_blank">SYFY WIRE</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While on Earth, most sources of radiation are gamma- and/or X-rays; radiation in space and on Mars (also known as GCR or galactic cosmic radiation) is of a completely different kind and involves highly energetic particles, mostly protons. This radiation is even more destructive than X- and gamma-rays, so not even survival of the fungus on the ISS was a given."</p>
International Space Station
NASA<p>To be sure, the researchers said more research is needed, and that <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would likely be used in combination with other radiation-shielding technology aboard spacecraft. But the findings highlight how relatively simple biotechnologies may offer outsized benefits on upcoming space missions.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond," the researchers wrote.</p>
A strange object found in Utah desert has prompted worldwide speculation about its origins.
- A monolithic object found in a remote part of Utah caused worldwide speculation about its origins.
- The object is very similar to the famous monolith from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: Space Odyssey".
- The object could be work of an artist or even have extraterrestrial origins.
1. ART OBJECT<p>Chances are, this is an art object. The shiny "monolith" appears to be bolted to the ground and made of metal. It also seems to be fastened with rivets, rather being a uniform block of more unexplainable production origin. Deserts are great places for unusual art installations as has been evidenced by art projects you can discover wondering through the desert ghost towns and faraway canyons of Nevada, California, Utah and New Mexico. Certainly, an artist with a sense of humor and an appreciation of Kubrick's genius could have installed such "sculpture" in hopes of exactly what is happening right now – viral fame.</p><p>On the other hand, there is evidence, courtesy of eagle-eyed <a href="https://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/jzkpad/helicopter_pilot_finds_strange_monolith_in_remote/gdg9qfi?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3" target="_blank">Google Earth sleuths</a>, that the object appeared in that location (somewhere near <a href="https://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Canyonlands National Park</a>) in 2015-2016. So it's possibly been there for a few years. Would an artist have placed it there so long ago with the aim of having this type of success eventually?</p><p>A gallery owner <a href="https://www.9news.com.au/world/utah-monolith-desert-mystery-solved-john-mccracken-sculptor-artist-2001-a-space-odyssey/0bae1a27-5bd2-451e-90a6-393928d9ed02" target="_blank">claimed</a> the work may be a tribute to the art of the late artist John McCracken, who created similar-looking objects before he died in 2011. McCracken was part of the Light and Space movement with such artists as James Turrell, and was known to make his sculptures from plywood forms that were coated with fiberglass and polyester resin.</p><p>While the theory that the monolith was the work of a McCracken aficionado (or the artist himself) may hold some water due to the object's similarity, the fact that the artist died so long ago and the lack of clear incentive for anyone to have planted this years ago only to reveal it now work against this theory.</p>
John McCracken sculptures.