Here is the full transcript of Time Well Spent co-founder Tristan Harris’ TED Talk: How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day.
I want you to imagine walking into a room, a control room with a bunch of people, a hundred people, hunched over a desk with little dials, and that that control room will shape the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction, but this actually exists right now, today.
I know because I used to be in one of those control rooms. I was a design ethicist at Google, where I studied how do you ethically steer people’s thoughts? Because what we don’t talk about is how the handful of people working at a handful of technology companies through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today.
Because when you pull out your phone and they design how this works or what’s on the feed, it’s scheduling little blocks of time in our minds. If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into.
When we talk about technology, we tend to talk about it as this blue sky opportunity. It could go any direction. And I want to get serious for a moment and tell you why it’s going in a very specific direction. Because it’s not evolving randomly. There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention.
Because every new site — TED, elections, politicians, games, even meditation apps — have to compete for one thing, which is our attention, and there’s only so much of it. And the best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works. And there’s a whole bunch of persuasive techniques that I learned in college at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab to get people’s attention. A simple example is YouTube.
YouTube wants to maximize how much time you spend. And so what do they do? They autoplay the next video. And let’s say that works really well. They’re getting a little bit more of people’s time. Well, if you’re Netflix, you look at that and say, well, that’s shrinking my market share, so I’m going to autoplay the next episode.
But then if you’re Facebook, you say, that’s shrinking all of my market share, so now I have to autoplay all the videos in the newsfeed before waiting for you to click play.
So the internet is not evolving at random. The reason it feels like it’s sucking us in the way it is is because of this race for attention. We know where this is going. Technology is not neutral, and it becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem of who can go lower to get it. Let me give you an example of Snapchat.
If you didn’t know, Snapchat is the number one way that teenagers in the United States communicate. So if you’re like me, and you use text messages to communicate, Snapchat is that for teenagers, and there’s, like, a hundred million of them that use it. And they invented a feature called Snapstreaks, which shows the number of days in a row that two people have communicated with each other.
In other words, what they just did is they gave two people something they don’t want to lose. Because if you’re a teenager, and you have 150 days in a row, you don’t want that to go away.
And so think of the little blocks of time that that schedules in kids’ minds. This isn’t theoretical: when kids go on vacation, it’s been shown they give their passwords to up to five other friends to keep their Snapstreaks going, even when they can’t do it. And they have, like, 30 of these things, and so they have to get through taking photos of just pictures or walls or ceilings just to get through their day. So it’s not even like they’re having real conversations. We have a temptation to think about this as, oh, they’re just using Snapchat the way we used to gossip on the telephone.
It’s probably OK. Well, what this misses is that in the 1970s, when you were just gossiping on the telephone, there wasn’t a hundred engineers on the other side of the screen who knew exactly how your psychology worked and orchestrated you into a double bind with each other.
Now, if this is making you feel a little bit of outrage, notice that that thought just comes over you. Outrage is a really good way also of getting your attention, because we don’t choose outrage. It happens to us.
And if you’re the Facebook newsfeed, whether you’d want to or not, you actually benefit when there’s outrage. Because outrage doesn’t just schedule a reaction in emotional time, space, for you. We want to share that outrage with other people. So we want to hit share and say, “Can you believe the thing that they said?”
And so outrage works really well at getting attention, such that if Facebook had a choice between showing you the outrage feed and a calm newsfeed, they would want to show you the outrage feed, not because someone consciously chose that, but because that worked better at getting your attention. And the newsfeed control room is not accountable to us.
It’s only accountable to maximizing attention. It’s also accountable, because of the business model of advertising, for anybody who can pay the most to actually walk into the control room and say, “That group over there, I want to schedule these thoughts into their minds.” So you can target, you can precisely target a lie directly to the people who are most susceptible. And because this is profitable, it’s only going to get worse.
So I’m here today because the costs are so obvious. I don’t know a more urgent problem than this, because this problem is underneath all other problems. It’s not just taking away our agency to spend our attention and live the lives that we want, it’s changing the way that we have our conversations, it’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other.
And it affects everyone, because a billion people have one of these in their pocket. So how do we fix this? We need to make three radical changes to technology and to our society.
The first is we need to acknowledge that we are persuadable. Once you start understanding that your mind can be scheduled into having little thoughts or little blocks of time that you didn’t choose, wouldn’t we want to use that understanding and protect against the way that that happens?
I think we need to see ourselves fundamentally in a new way. It’s almost like a new period of human history, like the Enlightenment, but almost a kind of self-aware Enlightenment, that we can be persuaded, and there might be something we want to protect.
The second is we need new models and accountability systems so that as the world gets better and more and more persuasive over time — because it’s only going to get more persuasive — that the people in those control rooms are accountable and transparent to what we want. The only form of ethical persuasion that exists is when the goals of the persuader are aligned with the goals of the persuadee. And that involves questioning big things, like the business model of advertising.