Bosker, Bianca. “The Binge Breaker.” The Atlantic.
On a recent evening in San Francisco, Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, took a name tag from a man in pajamas called “Honey Bear” and wrote down his pseudonym for the night: “Presence.”
Harris had just arrived at Unplug SF, a “digital detox experiment” held in honor of the National Day of Unplugging, and the organizers had banned real names. Also outlawed: clocks, “w-talk” (work talk), and “WMDs” (the planners’ loaded shorthand for wireless mobile devices). Harris, a slight 32-year-old with copper hair and a tidy beard, surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.” He keeps the background set to an image of Scrabble tiles spelling out the words face down, a reminder of the device’s optimal position.
I followed him into a spacious venue packed with nearly 400 people painting faces, filling in coloring books, and wrapping yarn around chopsticks. Despite the cheerful summer-camp atmosphere, the event was a reminder of the binary choice facing smartphone owners, who, according to one study, consult their device 150 times a day: Leave the WMD on and deal with relentless prompts compelling them to check its screen, or else completely disconnect. “It doesn’t have to be the all-or-nothing choice,” Harris told me after taking in the arts-and-crafts scene. “That’s a design failure.”
Harris is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co‑founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices.
While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.
Under the auspices of Time Well Spent, Harris is leading a movement to change the fundamentals of software design. He is rallying product designers to adopt a “Hippocratic oath” for software that, he explains, would check the practice of “exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities” and restore “agency” to users. “There needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards,” he says. “There is a way to design based not on addiction.”
Joe Edelman—who did much of the research informing Time Well Spent’s vision and is the co-director of a think tank advocating for more-respectful software design—likens Harris to a tech-focused Ralph Nader. Other people, including Adam Alter, a marketing professor at NYU, have championed theses similar to Harris’s; but according to Josh Elman, a Silicon Valley veteran with the venture-capital firm Greylock Partners, Harris is “the first putting it together in this way”—articulating the problem, its societal cost, and ideas for tackling it. Elman compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives. Harris, Elman says, is offering Silicon Valley a chance to reevaluate before more-immersive technology, like virtual reality, pushes us beyond a point of no return.
All this talk of hacking human psychology could sound paranoid, if Harris had not witnessed the manipulation firsthand. Raised in the Bay Area by a single mother employed as an advocate for injured workers, Harris spent his childhood creating simple software for Macintosh computers and writing fan mail to Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple. He studied computer science at Stanford while interning at Apple, then embarked on a master’s degree at Stanford, where he joined the Persuasive Technology Lab. Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill. (One of Instagram’s co-founders is an alumnus.) In Fogg’s course, Harris studied the psychology of behavior change, such as how clicker training for dogs, among other methods of conditioning, can inspire products for people. For example, rewarding someone with an instantaneous “like” after they post a photo can reinforce the action, and potentially shift it from an occasional to a daily activity.
Harris learned that the most-successful sites and apps hook us by tapping into deep-seated human needs. When LinkedIn launched, for instance, it created a hub-and-spoke icon to visually represent the size of each user’s network. That triggered people’s innate craving for social approval and, in turn, got them scrambling to connect. “Even though at the time there was nothing useful you could do with LinkedIn, that simple icon had a powerful effect in tapping into people’s desire not to look like losers,” Fogg told me. Harris began to see that technology is not, as so many engineers claim, a neutral tool; rather, it’s capable of coaxing us to act in certain ways. And he was troubled that out of 10 sessions in Fogg’s course, only one addressed the ethics of these persuasive tactics. (Fogg says that topic is “woven throughout” the curriculum.)
Harris dropped out of the master’s program to launch a start-up that installed explanatory pop-ups across thousands of sites, including The New York Times’. It was his first direct exposure to the war being waged for our time, and Harris felt torn between his company’s social mission, which was to spark curiosity by making facts easily accessible, and pressure from publishers to corral users into spending more and more minutes on their sites. Though Harris insists he steered clear of persuasive tactics, he grew more familiar with how they were applied. He came to conceive of them as “hijacking techniques”—the digital version of pumping sugar, salt, and fat into junk food in order to induce bingeing.
McDonald’s hooks us by appealing to our bodies’ craving for certain flavors; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hook us by delivering what psychologists call “variable rewards.” Messages, photos, and “likes” appear on no set schedule, so we check for them compulsively, never sure when we’ll receive that dopamine-activating prize. (Delivering rewards at random has been proved to quickly and strongly reinforce behavior.) Checking that Facebook friend request will take only a few seconds, we reason, though research shows that when interrupted, people take an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task.
Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together. To answer the friend request, we’ll pass by the News Feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through an infinite stream of posts—what Harris calls a “bottomless bowl,” referring to a study that found people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra. The “friend request” tab will nudge us to add even more contacts by suggesting “people you may know,” and in a split second, our unconscious impulses cause the cycle to continue: Once we send the friend request, an alert appears on the recipient’s phone in bright red—a “trigger” color, Harris says, more likely than some other hues to make people click—and because seeing our name taps into a hardwired sense of social obligation, she will drop everything to answer. In the end, he says, companies “stand back watching as a billion people run around like chickens with their heads cut off, responding to each other and feeling indebted to each other.”
A Facebook spokesperson told me the social network focuses on maximizing the quality of the experience—not the time its users spend on the site—and surveys its users daily to gauge success. In response to this feedback, Facebook recently tweaked its News Feed algorithm to punish clickbait—stories with sensationalist headlines designed to attract readers. (LinkedIn and Instagram declined requests for comment. Twitter did not reply to multiple queries.)
Even so, a niche group of consultants has emerged to teach companies how to make their services irresistible. One such guru is Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, who has lectured or consulted for firms such as LinkedIn and Instagram. A blog post he wrote touting the value of variable rewards is titled “Want to Hook Your Users? Drive Them Crazy.” While asserting that companies are morally obligated to help those genuinely addicted to their services, Eyal contends that social media merely satisfies our appetite for entertainment in the same way TV or novels do, and that the latest technology tends to get vilified simply because it’s new, but eventually people find balance. “Saying ‘Don’t use these techniques’ is essentially saying ‘Don’t make your products fun to use.’ That’s silly,” Eyal told me. “With every new technology, the older generation says ‘Kids these days are using too much of this and too much of that and it’s melting their brains.’ And it turns out that what we’ve always done is to adapt.”
Google acquired Harris’s company in 2011, and he ended up working on Gmail’s Inbox app. (He’s quick to note that while he was there, it was never an explicit goal to increase time spent on Gmail.) A year into his tenure, Harris grew concerned about the failure to consider how seemingly minor design choices, such as having phones buzz with each new email, would cascade into billions of interruptions. His team dedicated months to fine-tuning the aesthetics of the Gmail app with the aim of building a more “delightful” email experience. But to him that missed the bigger picture: Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives—or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?
Six months after attending Burning Man in the Nevada desert, a trip Harris says helped him with “waking up and questioning my own beliefs,” he quietly released “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” a 144-page Google Slides presentation. In it, he declared, “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies”—Google, Apple, and Facebook—“had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention … We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.” Although Harris sent the presentation to just 10 of his closest colleagues, it quickly spread to more than 5,000 Google employees, including then-CEO Larry Page, who discussed it with Harris in a meeting a year later. “It sparked something,” recalls Mamie Rheingold, a former Google staffer who organized an internal Q&A session with Harris at the company’s headquarters. “He did successfully create a dialogue and open conversation about this in the company.”
The biggest obstacle to incorporating ethical design and “agency” is not technical complexity. According to Harris, it’s a “will thing.” And on that front, even his supporters worry that the culture of Silicon Valley may be inherently at odds with anything that undermines engagement or growth. “This is not the place where people tend to want to slow down and be deliberate about their actions and how their actions impact others,” says Jason Fried, who has spent the past 12 years running Basecamp, a project-management tool. “They want to make things more sugary and more tasty, and pull you in, and justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of dollars [in] VC funds.”
Rather than dismantling the entire attention economy, Harris hopes that companies will, at the very least, create a healthier alternative to the current diet of tech junk food. He recognizes that this shift would require reevaluating entrenched business models so success no longer hinges on claiming attention and time. As with organic vegetables, it’s possible that the first generation of Time Well Spent software might be available at a premium price, to make up for lost advertising dollars. “Would you pay $7 a month for a version of Facebook that was built entirely to empower you to live your life?,” Harris says. “I think a lot of people would pay for that.”
Like splurging on grass-fed beef, paying for services that are available for free and disconnecting for days (even hours) at a time are luxuries that few but the reasonably well-off can afford. I asked Harris whether this risked stratifying tech consumption, such that the privileged escape the mental hijacking and everyone else remains subjected to it. “It creates a new inequality. It does,” Harris admitted. But he countered that if his movement gains steam, broader change could occur, much in the way Walmart now stocks organic produce.
Currently, though, the trend is toward deeper manipulation in ever more sophisticated forms. Harris fears that Snapchat’s tactics for hooking users make Facebook’s look quaint. Facebook automatically tells a message’s sender when the recipient reads the note—a design choice that, per Fogg’s logic, activates our hardwired sense of social reciprocity and encourages the recipient to respond. Snapchat ups the ante: Unless the default settings are changed, users are informed the instant a friend begins typing a message to them—which effectively makes it a faux pas not to finish a message you start. Harris worries that the app’s Snapstreak feature, which displays how many days in a row two friends have snapped each other and rewards their loyalty with an emoji, seems to have been pulled straight from Fogg’s inventory of persuasive tactics. Research shared with Harris by Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral candidate, shows that Snapstreak is driving some teenagers nuts—to the point that before going on vacation, they give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead. “To be honest, it made me sick to my stomach to hear these anecdotes,” Harris told me.
Harris thinks his best shot at improving the status quo is to get users riled up about the ways they’re being manipulated, then create a groundswell of support for technology that respects people’s agency—something akin to the privacy outcry that prodded companies to roll out personal-information protections.
While Harris’s experience at Google convinced him that users must demand change for it to happen, Edelman suggests that the incentive to adapt can originate within the industry, as engineers become reluctant to build products they view as unethical and companies face a brain drain. The more people recognize the repercussions of tech firms’ persuasive tactics, the more working there “becomes uncool,” he says, a view I heard echoed by others in his field. “You can really burn through engineers hard.”
There is arguably an element of hypocrisy to the enlightened image that Silicon Valley projects, especially with its recent embrace of “mindfulness.” Companies like Google and Facebook, which have offered mindfulness training and meditation spaces for their employees, position themselves as corporate leaders in this movement. Yet this emphasis on mindfulness and consciousness, which has extended far beyond the tech world, puts the burden on users to train their focus, without acknowledging that the devices in their hands are engineered to chip away at their concentration. It’s like telling people to get healthy by exercising more, then offering the choice between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder when they sit down for a meal.
And being aware of software’s seductive power does not mean being immune to its influence. One evening, just as we were about to part ways for the night, Harris stood talking by his car when his phone flashed with a new text message. He glanced down at the screen and interrupted himself mid-sentence. “Oh!” he announced, more to his phone than to me, and mumbled something about what a coincidence it was that the person texting him knew his friend. He looked back up sheepishly. “That’s a great example,” he said, waving his phone. “I had no control over the process.”