Tristan Harris is the founder of the Center for Humane Technology—an organization that is trying to get technology platforms to stop hijacking our minds. His message is spreading like wildfire, but it hasn’t yet caught the attention of conservative media. What fault lines will emerge when this movement goes mainstream?
Tristan Harris: Sean—I’m having trouble sleeping at night. A handful of tech companies are controlling billions of minds every single day, and no one seems to give a damn.
Sean Hannity: Why should I?
Harris: Social media platforms are taking advantage of our psychological weaknesses—our discomfort with boredom, our attraction to negativity—in order to maximize the amount of time we spend in their apps.
Harris: The more time we spend on these apps, the more they learn about what we like (and what we don’t). The more they learn about our preferences, the more we scroll, and so on. This cycle helps them build ever more powerful and profitable advertising tools. Ultimately, more eyeballs on their app leads to more money in their pockets. They’re selling your attention, and they’re not designing for time well spent.
Hannity: Hmm… Who are you to judge how I’m spending my time? Who died and made you the King of attention? I’m a consenting adult, and this is between me and my smartphone. You and your lefty friends in Silicon Valley should keep your hands out of my pocket. If I want to scroll, I’ll scroll. And when I want to stop, I’ll stop.
Harris: But Sean, these business models are bad for our long-term well-being. They won’t make us happier or healthier. They’re making us lose touch with our values—human connection, relationships, sleep, diversity of thought. They’re designed to be addictive!
Hannity: You sound a lot like Mike Bloomberg when he tried to ban Big Gulp soda in New York City. This trick didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. I don’t need anyone telling me what I can and can’t do—especially not the government. I’m free to do as I please. That’s what makes America great. If you disagree, then feel free to move somewhere else.
Harris: You’re angry at me for suggesting that we should spend less time on social media. You’re accusing me of being paternalistic and condescending. But if I’m a paternalist, what does that make Facebook? Every day, their algorithm decides exactly what it thinks you should see next. It uses what it knows about you to influence what you consume. It doesn’t give you the freedom to decide what appears in your feed. You’re subject to the whims of its ranking methodology. You may think that you’re free to do as you please, but in reality, Facebook is hijacking your mind. As soon as you open the app, they’re bombarding you with content that’s designed to get you to stay there as long as possible. Can’t you see that they’re using your belief in freedom of choice against you?! If that’s not paternalistic, I’m not sure what is.
Hannity: That argument is absurd, and it smells a lot like Bloomberg’s soda ban. When I walk into a 7-Eleven, I obviously know that the owners are controlling what I see inside the store. They get to stock the shelves with Coca-Cola and Doritos and whatever other junk food they want to put in front of me. So what? Who cares? They’re not hijacking my mind because I’m the one who decided that I wanted to walk into the store in the first place! And I can of course walk out whenever I choose. If I want to pull $5 out of my pocket and purchase a big soda, then you better believe I will! Why are you telling me what I should and shouldn’t do inside the store?
Harris: Your analogy is unfair. When you purchase a Big Gulp, you’re spending money. In return, you get a drink. When you open Facebook, you’re spending your time. In return, all you’re getting is FOMO and negativity and regret.
Hannity: No, Tristan—I spent my time on the Big Gulp as well. I traded time for money in order to earn that $5 in the first place. Why do you think that advertising networks are particularly evil purchasers of time? And why is social media any worse than cable television, for that matter? It sounds like you just have a bone to pick with for-profit companies.
Harris: When you spend $5 at 7-Eleven, they don’t learn much about you. They know about your taste for Big Gulps and the location of your purchase. If you visit often, they might accumulate some additional information about you over time. They’ll know how often you go, how often you drink Big Gulps, and what other types of junk food you like. They’ll learn a bit about you during your first few visits, but the marginal value of each additional visit decreases quickly.
Hannity: OK, but what about Facebook?
Harris: Facebook will learn more about you in 5 minutes than 7-Eleven could in a lifetime. Unlike 7-Eleven, Facebook collects a lot of new information on you with every additional visit (even if you’ve already opened the app a thousand times). And this information compounds. Over time, the monetary value that Facebook can extract from your time increases because they can better predict which ads you’re most likely to engage with. The longer you spend on Facebook, the more your time is worth to them. They know far more than you think they know, and they have an incentive to keep it that way. They know the content of every post you liked; how quickly you scrolled past the posts that you didn’t like; how long you lingered on that post you thought about liking; who your friends are and what they look like; what your friends like (and don’t); which news outlets you’re likely to engage with; what types of videos and memes can hold your attention; the content of everything you’ve ever posted; the websites you read when you’re logged into Facebook. The list goes on. Doesn’t that bother you?
Hannity: Why are you faulting them for figuring out an ingenious business model? This is the beauty of the free-market economy.
Harris: Five dollars is five dollars, whether it’s in your pocket or 7-Eleven’s. But time spent on Facebook has a different “exchange rate.” Your 5 minutes means far more to them (in dollars) than it does to you. Unlike the $5 you spent at 7-Eleven, there’s no way to recover those 5 minutes. They’re gone forever, and Facebook will never, ever give you a cut of the value that they’re able to extract from your time. You can only drink so many Big Gulps before you get too full. But the only real physical limitation on your internet consumption is sleep. Companies like Facebook have an incentive to keep us scrolling all night long.
Hannity: Truth be told, I don’t really care about their incentive. What matters is that people are free to stop scrolling whenever they want to.
Harris: You and I are both high-earning professionals. We’re able to sell our time for a lot of money because we’re highly motivated, driven, and ambitious. We’re rarely bored. Now picture the type of person who spends 4+ hours on Facebook every day. They’re probably down on their luck. Maybe they don’t have a job. Maybe they’ve forgotten how to have goals or hopes or dreams. Maybe they’ve forgotten what to do with their time when they’re not jacked into the Facebook machine. Or maybe they’re kids who don’t yet have a lot of self-control.
If you really think about it, Facebook is enabling the redistribution of time from people who who can’t monetize it to those who can. Facebook is extracting life’s most precious resource from the most vulnerable among us. People who have a lot of money and very little time (i.e. busy wealthy folks) are taking time away from people who have very little money and a lot of time (i.e. unemployed poor folks). It’s a vicious cycle. Who among us will tell their grandkids that they only wish they’d spent more time on Facebook?
Hannity: You’re still denying people their freedom of will! Nothing is stopping them from opening up the newspaper and finding a job. Nothing is stopping them from deleting these apps from their phones. Nothing is stopping them getting an education so that they can exchange their time for more money. Heck, they should just buy a flip phone if they’re so addicted! I don’t understand why you are so set on coddling people. Anyways, I get a lot of entertainment value from Facebook. Who are you to say that it’s a vice rather than a virtue?
Harris: Liberal news outlets and political operatives could use Facebook’s hyper-specific targeting tools to spew leftist propaganda to your viewers and listeners. You may think that they’re strong enough to resist these messaging tactics, but repeated exposure over long periods of time can be quite effective. And if Mark Zuckerberg is ever replaced by a more manipulative CEO, he or she could change Facebook’s ranking algorithm to suppress conservative content.
Hannity: So who’s more like Michael Bloomberg—you or Zuckerberg? We really ought to do something about this!