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Can we trust the people who got us hooked on the internet to save us from it?

Ex-Google employee Tristan Harris has a big plan for dismantling the addictive qualities of your favorite apps, but the story sounds familiar.

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Tristan Harris has been called “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” in the Atlantic, and, more concisely, “the conscience of Silicon Valley” in the Wall Street Journal.

He’s known this way because of a 141-slide manifesto he wrote in 2013 while employed at Google: “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.” In it, he argued against incessant Gmail notifications, the never-ending Facebook feed, and app design that ropes us in and sucks up our lives. Big tech companies, he said, were abusing their users by stealing their time. Google could set a new standard for the whole industry by doing something about it.

This made him an important figurehead for the rolling backlash against tech companies that have amassed billions of dollars by playing into the “attention economy” — buying and selling your time, your “faves,” and your expressions of joy and anger and empathy. Our awareness of the situation comes in waves, but the past few years have seen those waves breaking closer and closer together. It’s not just bad, it’s a disaster, Harris argues. We are so distracted and polarized and anxious that we are ceasing to function as a society.

Tristan Harris describing “time well spent” at a tech conference in New Orleans in 2018.
Stephen McCarthy/Getty Images

On Tuesday, he made this pronouncement at a summit in San Francisco, paired with a glowing write-up in Wired. In it, Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson describes Harris spending the last year in an office covered with rolls of white paper, writing on them with marker, trying to come up with better and more dramatic language to say exactly what social media has done to our brains and our society. (Vox, too, has covered Harris’ rise in the past.)

“His brainstorming was almost manic,” Thompson writes. “Part Don Draper, part Carrie Mathison, and part John Nash as portrayed by Russell Crowe.” At one point, Harris gives Thompson a tour of the scribblings and sketches via video chat. At no point does Thompson acknowledge that videoconferencing a journalist into your write-on-the-walls brainstorm den could be seen as highly dramatic. Or that blind faith in quirky, charismatic young men with big egos and splashy slogans is exactly how we ended up in this mess in the first place.

Or that we’ve seen this before, with reformed executives and reformed investors, all fairly charming while they talk and repent. If the problem is as severe as Harris says — and I don’t doubt that it is — the whole spectacle of a summit and a troubled savior seems like something of a lateral move.

The term that Harris and his Center for Humane Technology co-founder Aza Raskin ultimately settled on to convey the gravity of the problem is “human downgrading.” It means, essentially, that addictive technology has manipulated our emotions to the point where we are less functional. It’s a compelling and urgent term; there’s no argument there.

In fact, I have no problem at all with Harris’s basic sentiment, or even with most of his ideas. But I do wonder, a little bit, if he has ever interacted with a person whose livelihood depends on the internet and found that they were not aware of this urgency already.

When I speak to him on the phone on Wednesday, he politely brushes off the question. The point of the event was to create “a unified and shared agenda,” he says. If you ask most people what “the problem” is with the modern internet, you get “a cacophony of answers,” and the term “human downgrading” solves that.

The point of the summit was to unify everyone around one agenda, he says. And that’s where things get sticky, because this is not a problem that everyone looks at the same way.

A slide from the manifesto Tristan Harris circulated when he worked at Google in 2013.
Tristan Harris/Scribd

For example, in 2014, just as Harris’s view of the problem was getting mainstream attention, the vaguely socialist digital activism collective Plan C released a more radical manifesto arguing that each phase of capitalism is defined by one united “affect,” felt by all its participants. For much of the 20th century, they write, this affect was boredom. It is boring to program a machine. It is boring to perform the task, over and over, of restocking a shelf. But in 21st-century capitalism, Plan C argued. “the dominant reactive affect is anxiety.”

At the time, the British cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote in agreement, saying that our specific anxiety was created by “a mixture of boredom and compulsion,” leading us to another Facebook post and another BuzzFeed quiz and another scan through our inbox. It’s not that we don’t know that these things are boring, he argues, and it’s not that we’ve tricked ourselves into caring about them in a sincere way — it’s just that we are being manipulated into repeating the tasks by design. Harris and the other reformed technologists agree with him there.

When capitalism destroyed the absorptive feeling of boredom, Fisher then argues, it destroyed our ability to be absorbed at all. “It is just this capacity for absorption that is now under attack, as a result of the constant dispersal of attention, which is integral to capitalist cyberspace.”

This is where Harris and his cohort have much less to say. We are manipulated by design, of course we are, they agree, but they don’t seem to want to go to the next step. They will not say, in so many words, that we are manipulated by design that was created by capitalists, who are, as the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino recently put it, “[treating] their users like little countries that can be strip-mined to make other people rich,” or that perhaps social media should be, as artist and writer Jenny Odell suggests in her recent book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, a public utility, regulated as such, with no profit incentive at all.

“The villain here is not necessarily the internet, or even the idea of social media,” Odell writes. “It is the invasive logic of commercial social media, and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.”

When I ask Harris about it, he shoots back, “Good thing it’s easy to solve capitalism,” and tells me it’s a mistake to think that an economic system was “pulling the puppet strings” when, for example, his friend Kevin Systrom made Instagram.

“We need to hook up capitalism’s desire for growth to a system that’s regenerative,” he says. Human attention is a finite resource, a fossil fuel. On that much, we agree.

This is why what’s most interesting to me about Harris’s original Google manifesto is the thing it doesn’t say outright. Amid all the pep and playful rebellion, it makes the implicit argument that Google can afford to do something about the attention problem because Google alone, among the big tech companies, does not have a direct profit incentive to addict people to its products. Search is still the core of Google’s advertising business, and though YouTube complicates things, it doesn’t make the bulk of its money the way that Twitter and Facebook make the bulk of theirs: not from sharing, and not from reacting.

Within five years of Harris’s presentation going viral, Apple and Google both figured out that digital “well-being” — much like privacy, another hot commodity that doesn’t exactly suit advertising-based business — can serve as a marketable feature for a phone. It is a good subject for an ad. The wellness era makes that an easy and obvious play. There’s nothing very technically difficult about adding features to track app usage or strengthen parental controls on screen time. There’s a lot of goodwill to be gained without much effort. (And Google’s Wellbeing hub recommends that in order to train yourself to look at your phone less, you could just start talking to Google Assistant more. A win-win! A leg up in the voice wars!)

When these digital well-being features are spoken about in keynotes, the presentations typically highlight the ways in which reclaiming your wasted time will make you more focused and productive. It’s as if the time has to go someplace, and it ought to go someplace where it can make money.

It’s not egregious, but it is interesting that Harris has made no mention of Odell’s book, which was published just a few weeks ago, has been widely covered in the press, and neatly excises Silicon Valley from any proposed solution to Silicon Valley. She’d rather the reclaimed time go no place, and that we stop seeing ourselves as things that are obligated to make use of all our time.

It’s not precisely Harris’s fault, but he’s not the first man — and they are always men — to be hailed as the ex-tech guy who will lead us to tech salvation.

Reformed technologists come out of the woodwork every year. In 2017 it was Facebook’s former vice president of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya doing a quick press tour expressing his “tremendous guilt” about Facebook’s “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops destroying how society works.” (Concluding that Facebook “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”)

This was a month after Napster founder and early Facebook investor Sean Parker declared himself a “conscientious objector” to social media and expressed his guilt. Former Facebook product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez — who left the company’s ad-targeting team in 2013 — became a best-selling author and sought-after pundit when he published Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine in 2016. Yet Business Insider dubbed Harris “AN UNLIKELY REVOLUTIONARY” in all caps this month.

Harris’s team put out a press release on Tuesday, which is written as press releases are: “Over 300 people, representing a broad and influential spectrum of leaders, decision makers and scholars from in and around the technology industry, gathered today,” it starts. At this summit, Harris and Raskin announced that they would launch a podcast, hosted by the two of them, in conversation with “some of the most sophisticated experts in human nature.” They also produced a bulleted list of people who ought to pay attention to their ideas: policymakers, designers, technologists, the media, and researchers.

At the end, they gave out bookmarks with takeaways written on them: Humane technology “embraces our cognitive and societal ergonomics,” and “creates a world where humanity is capable of taking on existential risks.” These instructions strike me as vague, bordering on inactionable. But more importantly, they are obviously directed at the people who will be creating more technology, not the people who are already living with it. They do not have any special significance to me, someone whose main choice is to use an app or not use it.

On the phone, Harris says that the question he didn’t get around to asking on Tuesday was about whether our online “public square” should be considered something like a national park — a thing to protect and regulate. When I ask him about the exultant prose of the Wired profile, he says diplomatically that it’s “an example of the attention economy at work” and that people respond better to hero narratives. It’s out of his hands, in other words.

I like Harris’s conception of a movement much better than I like no conception of a movement. But I also think the stakes are a little different for people who can afford to take a year off to collect their thoughts. In her book, Odell talks about her fear of a future in which we see “gated communities of attention,” created by people who can afford to remove themselves from commercial social media. She sees “privileged spaces where some (but not others) can enjoy the fruits of contemplation and the diversification of attention.” It doesn’t sound far-fetched to me.

Maybe we do need an ex-Google hero. But I’d like to think that part of this fight would include grappling with the question of why, whenever a situation feels urgent, we feel so tempted to talk as if it has come out of nowhere. After all, academics have actually studied the basic idea of an attention economy for decades. The modern conception of it can be credited not to Harris but to Michael H. Goldhaber, former director of the Center for Technology and Democracy, who talked about the inevitable victory of the attention economy for most of the late ’90s.

In December 1997, he wrote that attention was “the natural economy of cyberspace.” He predicted reluctantly that the role of the government would diminish under this new economy, that organizations would have less significance in people’s lives, that everyone would be forced to make “a personal website,” and that “To thrive in the coming century, you will have to look beyond money in any form and build a stock of attention for yourself as best you can.”

Tuesday’s bookmark souvenirs were created for a specific audience, obviously. They were for the 300 important people at the event. But whether this is how Harris meant it or not, his words are for a specific audience too: one that is having a delayed reaction to something that has been happening to most of us for a very long time already.

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