Tristan Harris has been called the "conscience" of Silicon Valley. He used to be part of the Silicon Valley establishment, as a product designer at Google. He came to realize that companies such as Google, Facebook and YouTube hijack our attention and dehumanize us, in a very real sense. And that in doing so, they pose a threat to democracy.
In our interview, Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, sums up his analysis with an evocative image: "a supercomputer pointed at the brains of two billion people." What he means by that is that programmers at Google, Facebook and YouTube skillfully target and play with our psychological weaknesses. They want to maximize their grip on our attention. Because they want to maximize the amount of advertising we see. In this context, Harris likes to speak of the "attention economy" and of "digital Frankensteins."
As for us, we could simply say, "the advertising doesn't really bother me. In most cases, the advertising I see doesn't even fit with my personal preferences, and I just ignore it." But the real problem lies elsewhere. The fundamental ways in which our brains work, and our basic instinctual behaviors, have hardly changed since the Stone Age. The quirkier, louder and gaudier that things – such as advertising, clips, etc. – get, the more they grab our attention and make us hunger for more. Product designers exploit this fact.
They keep making online content scream ever louder. And online content is now all about black and white; nuances have disappeared. What we see is just a small slice of reality, a slice that the major platforms choose for us. Content keeps getting simpler and easier to digest. Ideally, it's never longer than a tweet. And this is happening even though the world itself keeps getting more and more complicated.
"We're losing our mental sovereignty"
To function properly, democracy needs enlightened, informed citizens. Democracy builds on the principle that people are free to decide what is good and what is not good. But then how can democracy function when voters keep getting less well-informed, and live in filter bubbles? How can people be informed, if they only want to see simple messages? This is why Harris warns that "we are losing our mental sovereignty." In doing so, we are attacking the very foundations of our modern society.
Responsible companies wanted
To stop this process, Harris calls for ethical influencing. In his view, companies and programmers need to be aware of their responsibility and act accordingly. They need to harmonize their own aims with those of their users. The relationship between the two sides needs to be redefined, along the lines of doctor-patient relationships. In a good doctor-patient relationship, a doctor chooses the best treatment for the patient, not simply the one on which they earn the most money.
Policymakers have to take a leading role in bringing about the redefinition. Needless to say, the redefinition will call the whole advertising-based business model into question.
I'll be watching eagerly to see if Tristan Harris succeeds in changing the way the big U.S. players operate. His analysis of the situation is sharp, solid and compelling. The solutions he advances are somewhat less compelling, however. I think we still have a long way to go on this issue.
The complete interview with Tristan harris is available here.