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How technology is designed to addict us

Time Well Spent founder Tristan Harris wants techies to think about the consequences of their design choices.


How tech companies value your attention is a “crisis,” Time Well Spent founder Tristan Harris says — and a lot of people in the industry won’t even admit it’s a problem.

“One of the common arguments in the tech industry is, ‘Look, users are free to make choices. They can make their own choices,’” Harris said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “And it’s really just not 100 percent true. People's minds are shaped and manipulated in these moments.”

Harris spent nearly three years educating colleagues at Google about the ethics of tech design. Today, as an investor in and adviser to other companies, he urges all techies to question themselves about the consequences of what they’re developing.

“Product design used to be about building a product that functions well, that helps people,” he said. “Now I recognize that design became subsumed into, ‘How do I get people to use it? How do I get people’s attention? How do I hold them here?’ Almost all designers are now in this totally different role of just getting people’s attention.”

“What scares me more is when, because there is a positive intention in this industry to make things better, the assumption is that to impact them at all would be to impact them positively,” he added.

Every little thing your apps and services do — push notifications to your locked phone, autoplaying YouTube videos, or the little delay between when you open Twitter and when you see if you have any new notifications — is a bid for your attention and engagement, Harris said. Tech and media companies are engaged in a constant game of one-upsmanship to convince you to spend more time with them and not the others.

“Right now, Apple, Google and Facebook are kind of like these private companies who, collectively, are the urban planners for a billion people’s attentional landscape,” Harris said. “We all live in this invisible city, which they created.”

“Unlike a democracy, where you can have some civic representation and you could say, ‘Who’s the mayor?’ or, ‘Should there be a stoplight there?’, we don’t have any representation except if we don’t use the product or don’t buy it,” he added. “And that’s not really representation.”

You can listen to Recode Decode in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

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