The Eyeball Economy: How Advertising Co-Opts Independent Thought
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.
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 we always had an attention economy, whether it was on radio or television there's always been a race for our attention and it's a zero sum game. If one TV station gets more of your attention the other TV station gets less.
But now because we're spending more and more time on screens and there's so many things competing for our attention we really feel it. And in the attention economy with social media and with the Internet and our screens, everything needs your attention. So a meditation app, the New York Times, Big Think or Facebook—they're still all competing for the same currency, which is attention.
And if one guy gets more attention someone else gets less. As an example, the CEO of Netflix recently said that the biggest competitors to Netflix weren't other video sites, he said the biggest competitors to Netflix were Facebook, YouTube and sleep, because at the end of the day it all comes from this limited supply of attention that we get.
And part of that is because of advertising. Because the business model of advertising says I don't just want some of your attention, I actually make more money the more attention I get from you. So I have an unbounded appetite for more of your attention.
And the problem is that as each factor in the attention economy, whether it's a meditation app or it's Snapchat or it's Facebook or Netflix, they start ratcheting up more and more persuasive design choices to stick us to the product for longer and to keep us coming back, to addict us even. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom, where the lower I go on the brainstem at getting you to click and stay, the lower someone else has to go.
So when YouTube ads auto play the next video Netflix has to auto play the next video too otherwise they lose out on their attention market share. And so in this zero sum game what we really need to talk about is how do we reorganize the attention economy so it actually aligns with what we want?
Almost like redesigning the urban plan of a city, it's not about leaving this polluted city, it's how can we reorganize the city so it's livable again? How do we create zoning laws so that Netflix competes with other entertainment? How do I help each of us get the best two hours of downtime? And that's different than meditation apps that are competing for how to help people wake up in the morning.
Imagine that those are different zones, both in app stores and on our phones so that it's really about helping us, competing to help us live our lives not competing just to get the most attention.
So, why should we be questioning advertising? This is such a huge deal. Because advertising has, up until this point, propped up much of the tech industry's economy. It's been the cheapest and easiest way to grow and scale a business because you can always figure out new ways of getting attention, and you can find new ways of getting more money per eyeball that spends time with you.
But the costs of it are really just too big, because in a world where I've got your eyeball (and I'm Facebook) and I've got actually a billion of these eyeballs, and I'm asking, “Who wants to pay me the most to put a message in front of this eyeball?”, and in a world where I give that person personal information that would tell them exactly how to persuade this person (and they can persuade them with anything that they want because they know exactly, as for example, with companies like Cambridge Analytica which knew exactly how to persuade you politically), I would be enabling whoever wants to pay me the most to manipulate and influence this person's mind.
And in a world that's more and more persuasive where we know more and more about what influences this person, the ability to simply sell to the highest better whoever wants to persuade them undermines something really fundamental about what of our institutions are based on.
A market is based on a person making a conscious choice to buy or transact. When you can undermine or manipulate the thoughts and attitudes and beliefs of that person then that's really not something we can stand on anymore.
In an election where people have their own thoughts, opinions, beliefs and ideas about a candidate or about a policy—or not even, just about how much they hate each other—and that can be manipulated, then the foundation of an election or a democracy is also questionable.
And so in a world that's more and more persuasive, where it's more about persuasion than it is about advertising, what is the ethically persuasive world that we want to live in? In a world that is on a one way track getting better and better at persuading our minds to believe, feel and have different opinions than we would have had—because it can personalize exactly and tailor exactly messages that would sway us—how do we live in that world when so much of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas and the ability to democratically talk to each other about what the right answer might be?
So we need to question the business model of advertising in the way that it affects that economy.
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.
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A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.
Catching fear in a bottle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYyNzg1Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTQwMTcyMn0.WtpJ1E_dhK2o09fBpKARynj4_p5NXeklgsXsbd7xr9w/img.jpg?width=980" id="8ff51" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f10dd9188b173f4a36e85e9325507c6b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Photo Boards/Unsplash<p>Previous studies have tracked physiological signs of fear arousal, but none have established a one-to-one correlation between that arousal and specific, actual fear events.</p><p>Andersen says that much of the research has been conducted in lab settings with weak fear stimuli, observing subjects as they experience things like scary videos. Scares in these situations tend to be weak and difficult to measure. Even harder to track in these situations is the link between enjoyment and fear. </p>
Eyes everywhere<iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/109695164" width="100%" height="480" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="267ba87cfb8591ed5830499574d2272a"></iframe><p>Andersen and his colleagues conducted their experiments at <a href="https://dystopia.dk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dystopia</a> Haunted House, a commercial attraction in Vejle, Denmark constructed in an old, run-down factory. The Recreational Fear Lab has a long-standing partnership with the spook shack.</p><p>They outfitted 100 volunteers with heart monitors and sent them on their terrifying way through the 50-room horror mansion. The facility incorporates a number of fright mechanisms including frequent jump scares in which a sudden threat takes a visitor by surprise.</p><p>Researchers surreptitiously observed their participants on closed-circuit video as they made their way through the attraction. They tracked each individual's scares, scoring them for intensity according to their visible reactions. After exiting the attraction, individuals self-reported their experiences in the haunted house.</p><p>Combining these self-reports with observer notes and each participant's heart-rate data gave the researchers subjective, behavioral, and physiological insights into the ways in which fear is experienced, and when it's a good thing or not.</p>
A pair of inverted U-shapes<p>In analyzing their data, the researchers saw two separate inverted u-shape curves. One depicted participants' enjoyment based on their self-reports and observed behavior. A similar u-curve was detected in their heart rates showing that just the right amount of heartbeat acceleration is associated with fun, but too much is too much. It's the terror Goldilocks zone.</p><p>Says Andersen, "If people are not very scared, they do not enjoy the attraction as much, and the same happens if they are too scared. Instead, it seems to be the case that a 'just-right' amount of fear is central for maximizing enjoyment."</p><p>The research suggests that being scared is enjoyable when it represents just a quick minor physiological deviation from one's normal state. When it goes on too long, however, or triggers too severe a physiological change, it becomes disturbing. Game over.</p><p>Andersen notes that this is not dissimilar to the factors known to make interpersonal play enjoyable: just the right amount of uncertainty and surprise. These are, maybe not coincidentally, also the ingredients of a successful joke.</p>
A meteorite that smashed into a frozen lake in Michigan may explain the origins of life on Earth, finds study.
- A new paper reveals a meteorite that crashed in Michigan in 2018 contained organic matter.
- The findings support the panspermia theory and could explain the origins of life on Earth.
- The organic compounds on the meteorite were well-preserved.
Meteor streaks through Michigan sky<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80b7f30820153b35fc515592d7475f53"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EPu2qnqMYBo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The meteorite that smashed into Strawberry Lake carried pristine extraterrestrial organic compounds.
Credit: Field Museum
A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.
- There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
- A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
- Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.
First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)
Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.
All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.
Image source: European Space Agency
The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.
Into and out of Earth's shadow
In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.
The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."
In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."
When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.
The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.
BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.
MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.
Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.
A heated debate is occurring at the University of Miami.
- Students say they were identified with facial recognition technology after a protest at the University of Miami; campus police claim this isn't true.
- Over 60 universities nationwide have banned facial recognition; a few colleges, such as USC, regularly use it.
- Civil rights groups in Miami have called for the University of Miami to have talks on this topic.
Arthur Holland Michel: The Future of Surveillance Technology<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8c330ab8c4df396f5313be796c0d96da"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/hIC-kaYcq34?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Americans don't always agree with that assessment, especially on college campuses. Over 60 universities—Harvard, MIT, and UCLA are on the list—have banned facial recognition. Of the few schools that utilize it, USC lets students enter their rooms via face scans; the software also ensures intruders cannot access buildings.</p><p>These are great uses of this technology. You could argue it's how any progress with our devices should work: in service of people. The problem, of course, is that those in power don't tend to stop when they have a little taste of the possibilities.</p><p>University of Miami is the <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2020/10/27/human-rights-groups-call-on-the-university-of-miami-to-ban-facial-recognition/#a11c8bf2965a" target="_blank">latest school</a> to be embroiled in a battle over facial recognition. The ACLU of Florida was joined by 21 other groups when requesting that the university hold an open forum so that students can express their concerns. A piece of their letter is below. </p><p>This call for action was inspired after a September incident in which students <a href="https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/university-of-miami-tracked-protesters-with-video-surveillance-11712139" target="_blank">protested</a> returning for in-person classes during the pandemic. The students, concerned about their health, predominantly wore face masks. Still, a number of them were identified, leading to concerns that facial recognition was used. Campus police denied it—the chief even claimed the tech "doesn't work," though that notion <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/12/tech/face-recognition-masks/index.html" target="_blank">has been refuted</a>—yet civil liberties groups are worried that an invasion of privacy occurred.</p><p>Lia Holland, a member of the digital rights nonprofit <a href="https://www.fightforthefuture.org/news/2020-10-27-20-human-rights-organizations-call-on-university-of-miami-to-ban-facial-recognition-and-meet-f6f2119fd41b/" target="_blank">Fight for the Future</a>, wants answers from school administrators. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"UMiami is struggling to answer to their creepy surveillance practices, and clarify whether they are using their own facial recognition system, or Florida's state facial recognition database."</p>
Credit: Pixel Shot / Adobe Stock<p>The police chief in question, David Rivero, claims overhead surveillance cameras provided identification at the protest. Yet speaking of another case involving facial-recognition software, he's <a href="https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/university-of-miami-tracked-protesters-with-video-surveillance-11712139" target="_blank">on the record stating</a>, "We were able to [easily] identify and arrest him. We've [detected] a few bad guys that way."</p><p>The letter sent to the Board of Administrators <a href="https://www.fightforthefuture.org/news/2020-10-27-20-human-rights-organizations-call-on-university-of-miami-to-ban-facial-recognition-and-meet-f6f2119fd41b/" target="_blank">includes the following demands</a>: </p><ol><li>Issue a campus-wide policy banning non-personal use of facial recognition technology, and issue a statement that you have done so.</li><li>Immediately schedule an open forum with students and faculty/staff to discuss community concerns and clarify how student activists who participated in First Amendment protected protest activities were identified by campus police.</li><li>Immediately schedule a meeting with the UMiami Employee Student Alliance (UMESA) to address their COVID-19 safety concerns, the subject of the original protest.</li></ol><p>There's no doubt facial-recognition technology has a place in law enforcement. Victims of unsolved crimes are relieved when the perpetrators are brought to justice, regardless of the means. As Michel writes, some police forces are already surveilling large regions of their districts using the Gorgon Stare, a camera used from airplanes. Cameras are ubiquitous, and that's not going to change. </p>As a society, we need honest discussions regarding the application of surveillance. Nearly every citizen in China has <a href="https://www.cnet.com/news/in-china-facial-recognition-public-shaming-and-control-go-hand-in-hand/" target="_blank">already been logged</a> by facial recognition software, which has led to human rights abuses. While the stated intention of this tech by American police is pure, good intentions are known to pave the way...well, we know how that ends. <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 new 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>