AN UNLIKELY REVOLUTIONARY: How Tristan Harris went from working at Apple and Google to consulting with heads of state about how to reform Silicon Valley (FB, GOOGL)

Harris 100 list

  • In recent years, Tristan
    has become one of the most prominent critics of the tech
  • Harris got his start with a presentation he made while at
    Google highlighting the techniques it and other tech companies used
    to manipulate customers and dominate their attention.
  • In recent years, he’s been consulting with policy makers
    worldwide as they’ve investigated the tech industry’s influence on
    society and started exploring ways to counter it.
  • Harris spoke with Business Insider about his work and why he
    started to speak out against the industry’s practices.
  • Harris was named to Business Insider’s list of the 100 people
    transforming business.
    See the full list here

Over the last six years, Tristan Harris has forced us to think
differently about the devices and digital services we use every

First as a product manager at Google and later as an outside
critic of the tech industry, he’s shone a light on what’s been
called the attention economy, the way our phones and apps and web
services are constantly diverting and distracting us.

It took years for his critique to spread. But boy has it.

News that Russian-linked provocateurs had hijacked Facebook and
other social media sites to spread propaganda during the 2016
election helped boost his profile. So too did reports that social
media was leading to a significant uptick in depression among kids.
Since then, Harris has found a ready audience ranging from everyday
citizens to heads of state wanting to better understand how tech
companies are manipulating or being used to manipulate their

Harris, who cofounded the Center for Humane Technology to
develop and promote ideas for reforming the tech industry, has
already made a mark on the industry. Features such as
Apple’s Screen Time
, which iPhone owners can use to set limits
on how much they use their devices and apps, are a direct result of
the criticisms he’s raised.

And more may be on the way. For the first time, policymakers in
the US and across the globe, many of whom have consulted with
Harris and his colleagues, are seriously considering regulations to
reset the relationship between the technology companies and their
customers and the wider society. On Monday, for example, the UK’s
Information Commissioner’s Office told the BBC it was considering
severely restricting the amount of data social networks can collect
on children by putting in place a range of measures, including

limiting their use of like buttons

Business Insider spoke with Harris recently about what inspired
him to start his movement and what he feels he’s achieved so far.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Harris felt the industry was heading in the wrong direction

Troy Wolverton: You’ve been trying to draw
attention to and get the tech companies to address the abuses of
what you call the attention economy since you put together your
presentation in 2013.
How do you think you’ve affected the industry or the debate?

Tristan Harris: At the beginning, people didn’t
necessarily want to admit that there was a problem. I mean, the
slide deck at Google went viral, and [it resonated with] people.
But there was no action. It was just lots of denialism, lots of
“oh, people are addicted to lots of things, cigarettes, alcohol.
Isn’t this just capitalism?”

And it’s like, guys, we’re creating a very specific form of
psychological manipulation and influence that we, the tech industry
are responsible for fixing. And getting people to admit that took a
really long time. We had a hard time getting people to sort of just
agree that there was a problem that had to get fixed.

And I think now what’s changed is that people do know —
because they’ve been forced to know — that there’s a problem. So
now people are talking about what do we actually do about it.

What I’ve been hearing recently is that for the first time
executives at Facebook, their friends are now kind of turning on
them and saying, “Which side history do you want to be on?”

And now I think because enough of the public has swayed the
friends of people at the tops of these companies, that people now
realize there’s something structural we have to change.

Wolverton: What prompted you to put together
the slide deck in 2013?

Harris: I felt like, fundamentally, there was
just something wrong about the direction where this was headed,
which is a really kind of a scary thought when you see an entire
industry headed in not the right direction. Because up until then I
thought technology was great.

This is not an anti-technology movement. But what I was starting
to really wake up to was … what my most talented friends and
engineers were increasingly doing was to be better and better at
playing tricks on the human mind to keep people hooked on

I just felt that everyone that I knew was really not doing the
kind of big, creative thinking that people had used do in the 90s
and the early 2000s and it was becoming instead this race to
manipulate the human mind.

Wolverton: But was there some moment that
triggered that awareness, some epiphany?

Harris: I had a little bit of an epiphany. I
went to the Santa Cruz mountains for a weekend with my friend Aza
Raskin, who is now a cofounder of CHT. I came back from that
weekend, after reconnecting with nature, and something profound
kind of just hit me. I really don’t know what came over me.

I just felt like I had to say something. It felt wrong. It felt
like no one else was going to say something.

I’m not the kind of person that starts revolutions or speaks up.
This is something that I’ve had to learn how to do.

Heads of state have been knocking on his door

Wolverton: How has your understanding of the
scope of the problem changed since you put together your 2013

Harris: I had been CEO of a tiny Web 2.0 tech
startup called Apture. I had a background, academically, in
cognitive science, and computer science, and linguistics,
user-interface design, human-computer interaction, things like
that. I was trained to think about building technology products and
the human mind.

Since I left Google and especially after Cambridge
and pairing up with [Silicon Valley venture
capitalist] Roger [McNamee], and these issues took off, my breadth
of understanding and the scope of what’s stake expanded by multiple
orders of magnitude.

The scope of the issue has [been] raised from the way that a
product designer would think about attention and notifications and
home screens and the economics of app stores — which is how I
started — to now playing 12-dimensional geopolitical chess and
seeing how Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, use these platforms
for global information warfare. [And it goes from there] all the
way down to the way these issues affect the day-to-day social
pressures and mental life of teenagers.

We have world governments knocking on our door, because they
want to understand these issues. Briefing heads of state — I
never thought I’d be doing that. This has been wild, and it speaks
to the scope and gravity of the issue.

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I knew that this issue would affect everything, conceptually,
back in 2013. But I didn’t ground that understanding as I have over
the last year and a half, where you actually meet the people in the
countries whose elections are at stake by these issues. Or you meet
and speak with parent-children-teacher groups that wrestle with
these issues daily. So, it literally affects everyone and
everything. And it’s the choke point for what is holding the pen of
human history, which is what I think people underestimate.

Wolverton: If you imagine this process as a
curve going from identifying a problem to adequately addressing it,
where do you think we are along it?

Harris: Still the opening inning, I think. I
think we’re in the opening innings of a reckoning.

[Companies such as Facebook and YouTube] are going to be looked
back on as the fossil fuel companies, because in the attention
economy, they drill deeper and deeper in the race to the bottom of
the brain stem to get the attention out of people.

[They’re] now, wherever pressure exists on them, trying to
correct for the largest of the harms that occur, but only because
usually unpaid or nonprofit-paid civil society research groups stay
up till 3 in the morning, scrape Facebook and YouTube and calculate
the recommendation systems and the disinformation campaigns, and
then they tell … the New York Times … and then Facebook or
YouTube might, if there’s enough pressure, after [a Rep.] Adam
Schiff or a Senator [Mark] Warner or [Sen. Richard] Blumenthal
letter from Congress start to do something about it.

I think looking backwards we’re going to say, ‘Oh my god, we’re
so glad that we woke up from that nightmare and started designing,
and funding, and structuring our technology in such a way that it’s
cooperatively owned by the users and the constituencies that it
most affects. It’s not on an infinite growth treadmill. It is
designed with humane business models that are considerate of human
sensitivities and vulnerabilities.

Tech companies have taken only baby steps so far

Wolverton: You’ve said that companies like
Facebook, Apple, and Google have taken what you call baby steps
toward addressing these issues by doing things such as allowing
people to set limits on the time they spend on their devices. How
important are those?

Harris: They’re celebrated baby steps. I just
want to be clear. I’m happy that they’re doing it, because it sets
off a race to the top.

I mean, I had one of the executives of a major technology
company you would know say, next to me on a stage at a private
event, the whole industry is now in a race to the top for time well
spent. I mean that’s ridiculous. We were able to flip this around
from a race to the bottom — from who can just steal attention by
pulling on our paleolithic puppet strings — to now a race to the
top. [Companies are now vying to] prove that they care more about
… the individual’s well-being and hopefully in the future, a
whole society and civilizational well being.

But that’s why the baby step matters. It actually co-occurred
with all the companies starting to race in that direction, and we
have to keep that race going.

Wolverton: With all this focus on how devices
and apps are demanding our attention, I was wondering how much time
you’re spending on your phone these days.

Harris: Well, this is one of the most important
issues for the world for all time, and I am, and our organization,
are playing such a big role in it that unfortunately, I am
constantly working on this problem, which means constantly using

I could look at my screen time app for you if you want, and I
now know the answer to that question thanks to the features that
now exist in a billion phones.

Let me see. Screen time, last seven days, average is 3 hours and
2 minutes per day.

Zuckerberg’s tone-deaf declaration of victory in 2018 should make
everybody worry about what’s going to happen with Facebook next

Join the conversation about this story »

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Source: FS – All – Economy – News
AN UNLIKELY REVOLUTIONARY: How Tristan Harris went from working at Apple and Google to consulting with heads of state about how to reform Silicon Valley (FB, GOOGL)