It is not a particularly unique observation that the culture of constantly looking at our phones has spawned an app economy whose emotional manipulation, trampling of our privacy, and spread of misinformation has changed our society, likely not for the better. Former Google engineer Tristan Harris, who spoke to 60 Minutes on this topic in April, has started a nonprofit called Time Well Spent to fight the influence of “advertising-fueled technology” on our minds. This week he has a lengthy new interview in Wired on how we can respond and save our sentient being-hood before virtual reality and artificial intelligence trap us in some dystopian version of The Matrix.
“Advertising is the new coal,” Harris tells Wired. “It was wonderful for propping up the internet economy. It got us to a certain level of economic prosperity, and that’s fantastic. And it also polluted the inner environment and the cultural environment and the political environment because it enabled anyone to basically pay to get access to your mind."
“On Facebook specifically, it allows the hyper-targeting of messages that perfectly persuade and polarize populations,” he says. “That’s a dangerous thing. It also gave all these companies an incentive to maximize how much time they have of your life. So we have to get off of this business model. And we haven’t actually invented the alternative yet.”
Harris also decries the Facebook platform’s hold over two billion users’ minds, calling it “possibly the largest source of influence over two billion people’s thoughts that has ever been created. Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts.”
“We have three technology companies who have this system that frankly they don’t even have control over—with newsfeeds and recommended videos and whatever they put in front of you—which is governing what people do with their time and what they’re looking at,” Harris says.
Ultimately, Harris complains that the tech firms have bamboozled us into pursuing their goals over our own. “We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves,” he says. “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,” he notes. “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.”
Harris's critiques might make more impact if he included some actual dirt on these brain-hijacking tactics (he’s in a position to know!) instead of remorseless autofellatio on the very industry that made him a millionaire. Further, he recommends solving the problem with more apps. Certainly Bro-ey Brosowycz makes a few compelling points here, but I've got my own personal solution to this so-called "brain hacking" never trust anyone who refers to a solution as a "hack."