Home » Tristan Harris: How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day (Transcript)

Tristan Harris: How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day (Transcript)

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.

Lastly, we need a design renaissance, because once you have this view of human nature, that you can steer the timelines of a billion people — just imagine, there’s people who have some desire about what they want to do and what they want to be thinking and what they want to be feeling and how they want to be informed. And we’re all just tugged into these other directions.

And you have a billion people just tugged into all these different directions. Well, imagine an entire design renaissance that tried to orchestrate the exact and most empowering time-well-spent way for those timelines to happen. And that would involve two things: one would be protecting against the timelines that we don’t want to be experiencing, the thoughts that we wouldn’t want to be happening, so that when that ding happens, not having the ding that sends us away. And the second would be empowering us to live out the timeline that we want. So let me give you a concrete example.

Today, let’s say your friend cancels dinner on you, and you are feeling a little bit lonely. And so what do you do in that moment? You open up Facebook. And in that moment, the designers in the control room want to schedule exactly one thing, which is to maximize how much time you spend on the screen.

Now, instead, imagine if those designers created a different timeline that was the easiest way, using all of their data, to actually help you get out with the people that you care about? Just think, alleviating all loneliness in society, if that was the timeline that Facebook wanted to make possible for people.

Or imagine a different conversation. Let’s say you wanted to post something supercontroversial on Facebook, which is a really important thing to be able to do, to talk about controversial topics. And right now, when there’s that big comment box, it’s almost asking you, what key do you want to type? In other words, it’s scheduling a little timeline of things you’re going to continue to do on the screen.

And imagine instead that there was another button there saying, what would be most time well spent for you? And you click “host a dinner” And right there underneath the item it said, “Who wants to RSVP for the dinner?” And so you’d still have a conversation about something controversial, but you’d be having it in the most empowering place on your timeline, which would be at home that night with a bunch of a friends over to talk about it.

So imagine we’re running, like, a find and replace on all of the timelines that are currently steering us towards more and more screen time persuasively and replacing all of those timelines with what do we want in our lives.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of handicapping our attention, imagine if we used all of this data and all of this power and this new view of human nature to give us a superhuman ability to focus and a superhuman ability to put our attention to what we cared about and a superhuman ability to have the conversations that we need to have for democracy.

The most complex challenges in the world require not just us to use our attention individually. They require us to use our attention and coordinate it together. Climate change is going to require that a lot of people are being able to coordinate their attention in the most empowering way together.

And imagine creating a superhuman ability to do that. Sometimes the world’s most pressing and important problems are not these hypothetical future things that we could create in the future. Sometimes the most pressing problems are the ones that are right underneath our noses, the things that are already directing a billion people’s thoughts.

And maybe instead of getting excited about the new augmented reality and virtual reality and these cool things that could happen, which are going to be susceptible to the same race for attention, if we could fix the race for attention on the thing that’s already in a billion people’s pockets. Maybe instead of getting excited about the most exciting new cool fancy education apps, we could fix the way kids’ minds are getting manipulated into sending empty messages back and forth.

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