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It’s Time for Tech Companies to Build More Humane Products

March 20, 2018, 7:50 PM UTC

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.—Tristan Harris became known in the tech industry for his years as a Google design ethicist, a curious role for much of corporate America outside of Silicon Valley. His job was to look at society as an ant farm—population: several billion—and wonder how to ethically steer and manipulate the human mind.

Today, as technology veers into ethical boundaries seemingly every week, that role doesn’t seem so strange.

“That [smart]phone is sort of this remote mind-control device that starts steering these two billion ants in different directions,” Harris said Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference. Indeed, Google considered it a moral responsibility to shape the attention of those billions.

But Google isn’t alone. There’s also Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Netflix. All are vying for our attention by design.

“There’s only so much attention in the world and there are only so many hours in the day,” said Harris, now the co-founder of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reverse what the so-called digital attention crisis.

In today’s connected world, it becomes an unconscious habit for us to merely preserve our attention from the onslaught of new products and services. It’s no coincidence. The business model for these companies and many others is built on gaining attention, Harris said.

“We know where technology is going,” he said. “It’s going to demand more attention, not less.”

The resulting loneliness becomes a public health issue, Harris said. “Every time you open an app there are 1,000 engineers behind it trying to keep you using it,” he said.

And just because you played video games as a kid and turned out fine—Harris acknowledged he did just that—doesn’t mean that those games are comparable to today’s technologies. “We’ve never had 100 million human animals” in their teen years “viewing hundreds of photos of their friends having fun without them.”

In other words, today’s attention-grabbing is on a scale never before seen in human history. As many people are “jacked into” YouTube as there are people who follow Islam, Harris said. So “we need to understand a more compassionate view of human nature” if we’re going to keep designing things for it, he said.

“How do we make the default settings work for everybody?” Harris asked an audience of health industry experts. How do we convince Apple, for example, to design a phone to generate less phantom buzzing and less frequent notifications that interrupt us? “To respect that evolutionary boundary,” Harris said.

And it’s not just our phones. Netflix’s “stated goal is to eat into sleep,” Harris said. We can engage with Netflix without it being adversarial with our necessary bodily functions.

We often talk about this phenomenon as “addiction,” Harris said. But “that word really hides a lot of nuance and complexity about what’s really going on today.”

Watch a video on YouTube—which is owned by Harris’ former employer—and “a supercomputer is playing chess with your mind” to play the next great video and keep you indefinitely engaged.

“What we’re calling addiction is basically AI pointed at our brains,” Harris said. And it will keep getting better at winning.

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, click here.