GLENN: Tristan Harris, he is the founder of Time Well Spent. He is a former Google design ethicist. Gave a great -- a great talk on, how do we change this?
Tristan, how are you?
TRISTAN: Glenn, it's great to be here. I'm great. Thank you for having me.
GLENN: So I'm so happy to see that I'm not the only one feeling this way and not the only one trying to figure a way out. But it's almost impossible, at least at my level to -- to even talk to people who are even thinking this way. No, I want to design the website in a way that it gets people back to their own life, faster.
TRISTAN: Right. Yeah. Completely. Well, I have to say, Glenn, I was also really moved by your interview with Dave Reuben, talking about how the race for attention -- when you were on television, and the race for good ratings affected, you know, your own life. And I think this is the thing people miss about the tech industry is that no matter what good intentions, Facebook, Google, you know, Snapchat has, to improve people's lives, they're cut in this race for attention.
And as I said in the TED talk, and as you know so well, it's this race to the bottom of the brainstem, for whatever works at getting attention. And there's no escaping that. Because there's only so much attention. There's only so much time in people's lives, only so many hours in a day.
And it's not growing. So, you know, that the race is only going to get more competitive. And as it gets more competitive, it becomes this race for figuring out what pushes the buttons in people's brains. And so we have to get out of this race for attention.
And like you said, you can't ask anyone who is in the attention economy to not do what they're doing.
You can't tell YouTube, "Hey, stop getting so much of people's attention." You can't tell Facebook, "Hey, stop making your product so addictive." You can't tell Snapchat, "Hey, stop manipulating the minds of teenagers to get them sending messages back and forth and hooking them because they're all caught in this race for attention," which is why we need to reform the system one level up. You have to go outside the system. And I'd love to talk to you about that.
GLENN: So what does that even mean? How do you go one level up? What is one level up?
TRISTAN: Well, it's sort of like the tragedy of the common. So you can't ask any one of the actors to do something different than what they're doing. They need to be able to coordinate their rates for attention.
So, you know, one way to go one level up is to go to the government, which is not very pleasant of an idea. Another way to go one level up is to actually go to Apple. So Apple is kind of like the government of the attention economy. Because they create the device upon which everyone else is competing for attention.
And Google is also sort of a mini government of the attention economy. Because they create kind of the government of who gets the best results, when -- when you search for something.
And Facebook is kind of the government of the attention economy too because they choose who is at the top of your feed. And, currently, they're locked into their own race for attention.
So one of the things is we have to decouple profit from attention. Because as long as those two things are one to one connected, it becomes this race to the bottom. And we actually did this with energy, where there's only so much energy available to sell people. And energy companies used to have this incentive of, I make more money, the more energy you use. So I actually want you to leave the lights on. Leave the faucets on.
And, you know, that created a problem, where -- where, you know, we -- we waste more energy. We waste -- or we pollute the environment, the more money the companies make.
And in the US, we went through a change called decoupling, which decoupled through a little bit of self-regulation among the energy companies, where they basically capped how much money energy companies pocketed directly from the more energy people used. And then the remaining energy -- when you use a lot of energy, all that extra energy, they priced it higher to disincentivize it. And then they actually used that extra profit, not to capture it for themselves, but to collectively reinvest it into renewable energy infrastructure.
And so I'm wondering whether or not something like that couldn't happen for attention, where companies could profit from some amount of attention were that relationship to exist. But then beyond a certain point, what if everyone was reinvestigating in the greater good of the attention company?
Because, you know, right now, 2 billion people's minds from the moment they wake up in the morning -- you know, they're jacked into this environment -- this digital environment that's controlled by three technology companies, like Apple, Google, and Facebook.
GLENN: Tristan. Go ahead. I'm sorry. Go ahead.
TRISTAN: No. Go ahead.
GLENN: Does it -- does it -- does it -- I mean, A, I'm really glad somebody is thinking about this. Because I think about this stuff all the time, and I don't hear anybody really talking about it.
GLENN: And it's a little hair-raising because what you're even saying starts to roll into the, you know, big brother, Brave New World. I mean, it could so easily go into -- we're just in this weird place that I don't know if mankind has ever been in before, that if we don't do this right, we're really going to screw ourselves.
TRISTAN: No. You know, you're so dialed into this, Glenn. You're totally right. And, you know, I studied this for three or four years. I was a design ethicist at Google, where literally the way I spent every single day studying, what does it mean to ethically steer people's attention?
And it really, like you said, it's the Brave New World scenario combined with the Big Brother scenario. Because whether we want to admit it or not -- you know, again, 2 billion people from the moment they wake up to every bathroom break, to every coffee line, to going to bed, to every back of the Uber or public transportation, you know, people are glued to their phones. We check them 150 times a day.
And, again, because of this race for attention, these technology products are not neutral. Each one, in trying to do whatever it can to get attention.
So they deploy these different persuasive techniques, and it becomes this, you know, amusing ourselves to death, you know, Brave New World scenario.
If you've seen the movie WALL-E, it's like a race to put people with a screen in front of their eyes for as many hours as possible.
TRISTAN: Consuming for as much as possible, because that's what's most profitable. So it does start to resemble something like the Matrix.
I don't know if you know the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, but in the beginning, he -- Neil Postman, the author contrasts Orwell's vision of the future, which we're all, you know, really ready to oppose. Because it's a form of tyranny. We don't want Big Brother. But then there's this subtler vision of Brave New World that people forget to oppose because there's no face of it. There's no Big Brother.
TRISTAN: And here's this great line that's -- you know, Orwell was worried about a world where we would ban books. And it says Huxley was worried about a world where no one would want to read a book.
You know, Orwell was worried about the world in which the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley was worried about a world where the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. And, you know, it goes on.
And the point is --
GLENN: We're there.
GLENN: We are there.
STU: Tristan Harris is with us. Quickly, you had mentioned the manipulation that these companies do for your attention.
And you had a really great example with snap streaks. I don't know Snapchat very well, but can you kind of explain that?
TRISTAN: Absolutely, yeah.
So one thing that I think everybody who uses smart phone in a family is aware of is how this is affecting their kids, especially if they're teenagers.
So Snapchat is the number one way that teenagers in the United States communicate. This is very important. So if you're like me -- you know, I'm 33. You're an adult. You probably use text messaging as your number one way to communicate.
So you live in Texas. And you can imagine living in Snapchat. This is like your dominate way to communicate. And Snapchat figured out a way to hook kids called streaks.
And what that means is they show a number next to every single person that you chat with. And that number is number of days in a row that you continually sent a streak, a message back and forth.
So if you sent a message back and forth 150 days in a row, it shows the number 150 with a higher ball. And it might sound totally innocuous, but it actually causes kids to send all of these empty messages back and forth. They're literally sending photos.
GLENN: Just not to break the streak.
TRISTAN: Just not to break the streak.
TRISTAN: Just not to break the streak. And they give their password to five other friends when they go on vacation, just because they don't want to lose it.
And so it's like tying two kids -- you know, legs together on a treadmill, on two separate treadmills, and then hitting start. And watching them run like chickens with their heads cut off, passing the football back and forth, just so they don't drop the -- the streak.
And this is, by the way, you know, from a playbook of persuasive techniques that people in the industry know are good at getting people to do things. And you can use it for good.
Like, you can set up a streak for the number of days to the gym that -- the numbers of days you read five pages in a book, that you wanted to make sure you do that habit. So you keep up a streak. It's a powerful motivator.
But what they did is they took this powerful technique, and then they applied it to a vulnerable population. And they applied it to children's sense of belonging with each other. Because now kids define the terms of their friendship, based on whether or not they have a streak or not. It becomes the currency of their friendship.
And so that's what's new about this. People often say -- you know, back in the 1970s, we used to gossip on the telephone all the time. And now if I look at my teenage kids, they're just gossiping on the telephone a different way with Snapchat. There's nothing new or alarming here.
And what's different about this is that your phone in the 1970s didn't have thousands of engineers on the other side of the screen who knew how to -- how to strategically tap two people on the shoulder and make them feel like they're missing out on each other's lives. And to show you -- you know, to have a phone light up and appear in your life exactly when you're most vulnerable.
I mean, for example, it's never been easier to find out that you're missing out on what your friends are doing if you're a teenager.
You know, Snapchat or Instagram benefit if they put that at the top of the feed, not at the bottom, in the same way that Facebook benefits by putting outrageous news at the top of the newsfeed because it's better at getting attention. And so -- go ahead.
GLENN: No. Please, finish.
TRISTAN: Well, so as you said, I don't want to be here dwelling on the problem. I first want to do this because it's important people understand the problem.
And it's honestly one of the biggest problems of our time because it's infrastructure for solving every other problem.
You know, every other problem, health care, climate change, all these things require us to be able to sustain attention and talk about a complex topic.
And if we're just running around distracted all the time and if the entire next generation is hooked and addicted to their devices and we can't -- you know, we don't develop the capacity for patience or complexity or sitting with each other -- sometimes that's uncomfortable, you know -- you know, it's a delicate thing to be a human being.