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)

Maybe instead of worrying about hypothetical future runaway artificial intelligences that are maximizing for one goal, we could solve the runaway artificial intelligence that already exists right now, which are these newsfeeds maximizing for one thing. It’s almost like instead of running away to colonize new planets, we could fix the one that we’re already on. Solving this problem is critical infrastructure for solving every other problem. There’s nothing in your life or in our collective problems that does not require our ability to put our attention where we care about. At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time.

What will be time well spent for ours? Thank you…

Question-and-answer session

Chris Anderson: Tristan, thank you. Hey, stay up here a sec. First of all, thank you. I know we asked you to do this talk on pretty short notice, and you’ve had quite a stressful week getting this thing together, so thank you.

Some people listening might say, what you complain about is addiction, and all these people doing this stuff, for them it’s actually interesting. All these design decisions have built user content that is fantastically interesting. The world’s more interesting than it ever has been. What’s wrong with that?

Tristan Harris: I think it’s really interesting. One way to see this is if you’re just YouTube, for example, you want to always show the more interesting next video. You want to get better and better at suggesting that next video, but even if you could propose the perfect next video that everyone would want to watch, it would just be better and better at keeping you hooked on the screen.

So what’s missing in that equation is figuring out what our boundaries would be. You would want YouTube to know something about, say, falling asleep. The CEO of Netflix recently said, “Our biggest competitors are Facebook, YouTube and sleep.” And so what we need to recognize is that the human architecture is limited and that we have certain boundaries or dimensions of our lives that we want to be honored and respected, and technology could help do that.

Chris Anderson: I mean, could you make the case that part of the problem here is that we’ve got a naïve model of human nature? So much of this is justified in terms of human preference, where we’ve got these algorithms that do an amazing job of optimizing for human preference, but which preference? There’s the preferences of things that we really care about when we think about them versus the preferences of what we just instinctively click on. If we could implant that more nuanced view of human nature in every design, would that be a step forward?

Tristan Harris: Absolutely. I mean, I think right now it’s as if all of our technology is basically only asking our lizard brain what’s the best way to just impulsively get you to do the next tiniest thing with your time, instead of asking you in your life what we would be most time well spent for you? What would be the perfect timeline that might include something later, would be time well spent for you here at TED in your last day here?

Chris Anderson: So if Facebook and Google and everyone said to us first up, “Hey, would you like us to optimize for your reflective brain or your lizard brain? You choose.”

Tristan Harris: Right. That would be one way. Yes.

Chris Anderson: You said persuadability, that’s an interesting word to me because to me there’s two different types of persuadability. There’s the persuadability that we’re trying right now of reason and thinking and making an argument, but I think you’re almost talking about a different kind, a more visceral type of persuadability, of being persuaded without even knowing that you’re thinking.

Tristan Harris: Exactly. The reason I care about this problem so much is I studied at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford that taught exactly these techniques. There’s conferences and workshops that teach people all these covert ways of getting people’s attention and orchestrating people’s lives. And it’s because most people don’t know that that exists that this conversation is so important.

Chris Anderson: Tristan, you and I, we both know so many people from all these companies. There are actually many here in the room, and I don’t know about you, but my experience of them is that there is no shortage of good intent. People want a better world. They are actually — they really want it.

And I don’t think anything you’re saying is that these are evil people. It’s a system where there’s these unintended consequences that have really got out of control….

Tristan Harris: Of this race for attention. It’s the classic race to the bottom when you have to get attention, and it’s so tense. The only way to get more is to go lower on the brain stem, to go lower into outrage, to go lower into emotion, to go lower into the lizard brain.

Chris Anderson: Well, thank you so much for helping us all get a little bit wiser about this. Tristan Harris, thank you.

Tristan Harris: Thank you very much.

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