According to Tristan Harris, it’s going to take more than infinite willpower for billions of people to resist the infinite scroll of the attention economy. It’s going to take regulation, reform, and Apple becoming something of an acting government.
Harris — a former Google design ethicist and co-founder of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit that encourages tech companies to put users’ best interests before limitless profit models — insists that our minds have been hijacked in an arms race for our attention. He also insists that, with the help of a Hippocratic Oath for software designers, we can win.
“YouTube has a hundred engineers who are trying to get the perfect next video to play automatically,” Harris says in a new interview with WIRED‘s editor in chief Nicholas Thompson. “Their techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time, and we will have to resist the perfect.”
See? This is me resisting:
In their WIRED interview, Thompson and Harris discuss why now is the moment to invest in reforming the attention economy.
THOMPSON: At what point do I stop making the choice [to use Facebook or Google or Instagram]? At what point am I being manipulated? At what point is it Nick and at what point is it the machine?
HARRIS: Well I think that’s the million-dollar question. First of all, let’s also say that it’s not necessarily bad to be hijacked, we might be glad if it was time well spent for us. I’m not against technology. And we’re persuaded to do things all the time. It’s just that the premise in the war for attention is that it’s going to get better and better at steering us toward its goals, not ours. We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves. For example, we forget if the next video loaded and we were happy about the video we watched. But, in fact, we were hijacked in that moment. All those people who are working to give you the next perfect thing on YouTube don’t know that it’s 2 am and you might also want to sleep. They’re not on your team. They’re only on the team of what gets you to spend more time on that service.
Again, the energy analogy is useful. Energy companies used to have the same perverse dynamic: I want you to use as much energy as possible. Please just let the water run until you drain the reservoir. Please keep the lights on until there’s no energy left. We, the energy companies, make more money the more energy you use. And that was a perverse relationship. And in many US states, we changed the model to decouple how much money energy companies make from how much energy you use. We need to do something like that for the attention economy, because we can’t afford a world in which this arms race is to get as much attention from you as possible.
The opportunity here, is for Apple. Apple is the one company that could actually do it. Because their business model does not rely on attention, and they actually define the playing field on which everyone seeking our attention plays. They define the rules. If you want to say it, they’re like a government. They get to set the rules for everybody else. They set the currency of competition, which is currently attention and engagement. App stores rank things based on their success in number of downloads or how much they get used. Imagine if instead they said, “We’re going to change the currency.” They could move it from the current race to the bottom to creating a race to the top for what most helps people with different parts of their lives. I think they’re in an incredible position to do that.