Your phone is trying to control your life

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MILES O’BRIEN: One billion of us own a smartphone, and we know how addicting it can be.

One former Google employee says this is no accident. Indeed, it is by design. And he became troubled by the relentless efforts of app developers to keep us glued to the gadgets.

So, Tristan Harris founded an organization called Time Well Spent. He is asking the tech industry to bring what he calls ethical design to its products.

NewsHour special correspondent Cat Wise has more, part of our ongoing collaboration with The Atlantic.

TRISTAN HARRIS, Founder, Time Well Spent: I noticed when I was at Stanford, there was a class called the persuasive technology design class, and it was a whole lab at Stanford that teaches students how to apply persuasive psychology principles into technology to persuade people to use products in a certain way.

So, it’s not about giving you all this freedom. It’s about sucking you in to take your time.

CAT WISE: So, the goal is to keep us on our devices longer. Why?

TRISTAN HARRIS: For any company whose business model is advertising, or engagement-based advertising, meaning they care about the amount of time someone spends on the product, they make more money the more time people spend.

So, the game becomes, how can I throw different persuasive techniques to get people to stay, to spend as long as possible, and to come back tomorrow?

CAT WISE: And it’s clearly working.

Today, wherever we go, we’re inevitably surrounded by fellow citizens staring into their phones, as we usually are too.

What do you think about when you’re out in public and see people on their cell phones?

TRISTAN HARRIS: You know, have you ever been in a moment where you’re sitting there, and you just start using your phone to do something productive? Maybe you’re in the back of a car, a taxi, or you’re on public transportation. Your phone is always giving you a way to spend time that can be more productive, more entertaining, or more stimulating than reality.

I often say that this puts a new choice on life’s menu that’s sweeter than reality. And so we’re turning to it more and more often. We check our phones about 150 times a day.

CAT WISE: And what are the costs of that sort of constant interaction with technology, both on an individual level and as a society?

TRISTAN HARRIS: Well, I think each of us have to tune in for our own experience.

What does it feel like when we check our phones 150 times a day? Or what does it feel like if we have been scrolling, and had our face down, and not breathing very much when we’re scrolling for, say, 20 minutes? And how do we feel on the inside?

CAT WISE: How do you feel on the inside?

TRISTAN HARRIS: I feel like I don’t feel very good after that. I feel like my anxiety goes up. I feel more concerned about what I’m missing, what I’m missing out on, who I haven’t gotten back to. Oh, people think I’m bad at getting back to them.

All of this sort of psychology emerges all because of this one thing in my pocket. And we have never had a media device that literally a billion people are kind of being programmed in the same way, where so much influence is in the hands of a few technology designers.

CAT WISE: At Google, Harris was a so-called product philosopher and helped design the Gmail inbox app.

TRISTAN HARRIS: First of all, there was no one in the Gmail team who said, how can we addict people to e-mail? There was no one who said that. That was never a goal.

But you did hear conversations like, should we make it buzz your phone every single time you get an e-mail? It was a design question. But the outcome of that one choice would be a billion people getting buzzed at dinners with their dates, and with their friends, and with their family.

All of these billions of phones, by the product of this one choice, would be affected and interrupted all the time.

CAT WISE: And that was a conversation that you weren’t having?

TRISTAN HARRIS: I was getting a little bit disenchanted with whether or not we were having, I thought, the bigger conversation about when e-mail or any product that we make actually makes a positive impact on people’s lives.

And I made kind of a slide deck manifesto, and it basically said, never before in history have 50, mostly male, 20-to-35-year-old designers, living in California, working at three tech companies, influenced how a billion people spend their time.

CAT WISE: This is coffee bar in San Francisco, a popular hangout for high-powered techies like Harris, the ones whose choices can influence so many.

This idea of missing something, I think that drives a lot of us.

TRISTAN HARRIS: Tony Robbins has a great quote. He says: I run eight companies, and I have thousands of employees. What do you think the chances are that, at any given moment, if I check my e-mail, something has gone wrong?

CAT WISE: With his organization, Time Well Spent, Harris is urging peers in the tech world to have new conversations about the best interests of consumers.

TRISTAN HARRIS: We need to change the incentive.

I mean, I think, so long as the business model of technology companies is advertising, we are going to have a problem. And that’s what we’re trying to do with Time Well Spent, is to change the conversation from being about maximizing engagement and time, to being about maximizing net positive improvements to people’s lives.

CAT WISE: What are some examples of, you know, apps that people use on a pretty regular basis, and the ways that these companies are drawing us in?

TRISTAN HARRIS: Have you noticed, if you ever log into Twitter, as an example, so there’s an extra delay that you don’t know how long it’s going to take, between two and three seconds, where that — the number of new notifications on Twitter you have?

So, why is that there? Well, it makes that into — it’s called a variable schedule reward. It’s like a slot machine. So you’re playing the slot machine, and there’s a time delay. And you’re — in that time delay, your anticipation is building, and then you get to see how many notifications I get.

And so you become more addicted to checking it again the next time.

CAT WISE: It sounds like there’s just a lot of sort of trickery going on here.

TRISTAN HARRIS: I call it the race to the bottom of the brain stem, to get people’s attention at all costs.

Let’s say I’m YouTube, and I have got a certain amount of people’s attention. What’s YouTube’s biggest competitor? Probably Facebook. Or take — the CEO of Netflix recently said that the biggest competitors to Netflix are probably YouTube, Facebook, and sleep, meaning…

CAT WISE: Sleep?

TRISTAN HARRIS: Sleep, because, at the end of the day, there’s a finite amount of time people have. And if you’re not getting people’s time, someone else, some other app, or some other part of someone’s life is going to get it.

So these services are in competition with where we would want to spend our time, whether that’s our sleep or with our friends. There’s this war going on to get as much attention as possible.

CAT WISE: Tristan, tell me about how you use your phone.

TRISTAN HARRIS: Well, I mean, I try to use it as consciously as I can.

One thing, for example, is, I set it up so that I just have my in-and-out tools and my aspirational ways I want to spend my time on my home screen.

CAT WISE: What do you mean by in-and-out tools? What does that mean?

TRISTAN HARRIS: A tool is something that you use and you never use it longer or more than you want to, for example, Google Maps.

Like, if I need directions, I don’t end up scrolling through Google Maps for half-an-hour randomly, right? I just go in, and I find where I need to go, and then I go out.

CAT WISE: And these are things that really don’t draw you in for long periods of time?

TRISTAN HARRIS: There’s nothing on my home screen that is — explicitly makes money from or wants to maximize how much time I spend on it.

And I put all those other things inside of folders that are hidden.

CAT WISE: Are people still texting you, or are sort of your friends and colleagues, maybe they’re not texting you or trying to reach out in a way that would distract you so often?

TRISTAN HARRIS: At the end of the day, the thing that dictates what — how someone reaches out to you, and whether they use Facebook messenger or WhatsApp or iMessage, isn’t because they’re thinking deeply about it. It’s because it’s just the fastest and easiest thing to reach for.

And so I think we have to recognize that, as human beings, there’s just a certain set of things we’re vulnerable to that do influence us. And if it buzzes right now, I would probably, without even thinking about it, with you here, check it.

And so, if I don’t want that to happen, I just have to put it away. In fact, my phone just buzzed right now.

(LAUGHTER)

TRISTAN HARRIS: And I just looked. There you go.

CAT WISE: Even knowing what you know, you still picked it up.

TRISTAN HARRIS: And this is the thing, that even the people in the world of persuasion we were talking about earlier, you know all about these tricks of how to get people to use products and to use a slot machine dynamic, whatever it is.

They will tell you that they themselves are no less vulnerable than the regular person, because these techniques work on everybody. It’s just part of being human.

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