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: 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

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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