#1558 - Tristan Harris

    The attention economy on social media platforms promotes extreme views, harms democratic processes, and creates polarization. Reevaluating business models and promoting responsible information sharing is crucial for a healthier information environment.

    en-usOctober 30, 2020

    About this Episode

    Called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” by The Atlantic magazine, Tristan Harris spent three years as a Google Design Ethicist developing a framework for how technology should “ethically” steer the thoughts and actions of billions of people from screens. He is now co-founder & president of the Center for Humane Technology, whose mission is to reverse ‘human downgrading’ and re-align technology with humanity. Additionally, he is co-host of the Center for Humane Technology’s Your Undivided Attention podcast with co-founder Aza Raskin.

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Social media platforms are intentionally designed to manipulate users, and technology companies bear a great responsibility in shaping society's values and behavior.
    • Social media platforms use persuasive features to compete for our attention, influencing our behavior and shaping our perception of the world. Awareness is crucial in navigating the digital landscape.
    • Algorithms that prioritize new content and engagement can prevent monopolization, but may also reward addictive and attention-seeking content over what is true or meaningful. Balancing organic communication is crucial.
    • The pursuit of our attention by tech companies leads to an overload of potentially unimportant and unbeneficial content, highlighting the need for a healthier information environment and balance of power.
    • Social media algorithms create personalized experiences to keep users engaged, but this can lead to harmful recommendations, particularly for vulnerable individuals who struggle to differentiate between fact and fiction.
    • Be mindful of the influence social media platforms have on our beliefs and choices, and critically evaluate the information we consume in today's technologically-driven society.
    • Avoiding negative comments and criticism on social media is important for our mental well-being and personal reputation.
    • Social media and technology have a significant influence on teenagers, who need guidance and ethical practices to avoid reputational harm and address issues like addiction and mental health. A balanced approach is necessary for empowering individuals and creating positive change.
    • Social media platforms' reliance on extracting attention for growth fuels the breakdown of truth, polarization, and shortening attention spans, posing a threat to democracy and independent views. Congress needs to address this issue adequately.
    • Social media platforms like Facebook have the power to shape information and news, but their evolving policies and regulations create challenges in determining when online content causes offline harm. Fake news and echo chambers contribute to societal issues, and Facebook's responsibility to fix them is hindered by language barriers and limited cultural understanding.
    • The spread of fake news and misinformation on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp has led to real-world consequences, highlighting the need for responsible communication and reliable information.
    • The attention economy on social media platforms promotes extreme views, harms democratic processes, and creates polarization. Reevaluating business models and promoting responsible information sharing is crucial for a healthier information environment.
    • Protecting our attention and prioritizing user well-being is essential in creating a pure and positive internet, highlighting the need to limit invasive algorithms and advertising.
    • By acknowledging our biases and vulnerabilities, we can regain control over our attention and actions, fostering a conscious and healthier use of technology through individual, family, and societal efforts.
    • The growing movement for ethical social media alternatives and global awareness highlights the need to address the negative impact of platforms like Facebook for a better social media experience.
    • Social media distorts information, hinders compromise, and poses a national security risk, but examples like Taiwan's digital democratic system show potential for fostering consensus and shared views.
    • The rise of social media platforms has made it easier for foreign actors to manipulate internal tensions in the US by using funny memes and amplifying existing voices. We need to recognize and address these artificial motivations in conflicts.
    • Individuals should be aware of the manipulative tactics used on social media platforms and consider taking breaks or using simpler devices to reduce dependence and mitigate the harmful influence of the attention economy. Additionally, Apple's commitment to privacy and ability to regulate the attention economy make them a potential solution.
    • Governments investing in app stores for learning programs and schools can redirect financial support towards apps that benefit people, while addressing concerns about breaking addictive behaviors.
    • Prioritizing user well-being and designing platforms that enhance lives is crucial. While challenges like monetization exist, a more personalized and rewarding digital experience is possible.
    • It is important to address the addictive nature of certain games, explore the potential of a more neutral and privacy-focused social media platform, and hold tech giants accountable while avoiding excessive socialism.
    • To ensure a future where digital democracy prevails and societal challenges are tackled, it is essential to learn from successful implementations of digital democracies while being mindful of the risks and biases associated with advancing technology.
    • We need to prioritize addressing societal concerns and reclaim our autonomy in the face of advancing technology, to prevent manipulation and loss of control in a virtual reality future.
    • We must be cautious of the control and impact AI could have on our future, and strive to prioritize consciousness, values, and harmony to create a beneficial and peaceful society.
    • Authentic connections and finding peace within ourselves are crucial for a sustainable and fulfilling life. We must be aware of the dangers of technology and trivial distractions, and approach the challenges of our modern world with optimism.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The Social Dilemma: Exposing the Dark Side of Social Media

    The documentary "The Social Dilemma" was hugely successful, reaching millions of households on Netflix. It affirmed people's suspicions about the dangers of social media and shed light on the negative impact it has on personal lives. The film emphasized that social media is not just a tool but an environment designed for manipulation. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, discussed his background and how he realized the power and responsibility that technology companies have in shaping the collective human psyche. The conversation also touched upon Google's famous motto "Don't be evil" and its subsequent removal from their code of conduct. The exploration of morality in a pluralistic society emerged as a thought-provoking point.

    The Attention Economy: How Social Media Platforms Manipulate Our Behavior and Perception

    Social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, are designed to compete for our attention. These platforms use persuasive features, such as follower counts and instant resharing, to keep users engaged and coming back for more. The goal is not just to collect data or make money, but rather to influence our behavior and shape our perception of the world. This has led to an attention economy, where platforms are constantly vying for our time and focus. While regulation may be difficult, it is important to recognize that the ways in which these platforms manipulate our attention can have significant impacts on our lives. Awareness and understanding of these techniques is crucial in navigating the digital landscape.

    The importance of showcasing new podcasts and balancing engagement in podcast algorithms and social media feeds.

    Apple’s podcast app algorithm favors new shows, engagement, and new subscribers. This is to prevent dominance by already established podcasts, ensuring that new shows have an opportunity to be seen. While this may seem unusual, it allows for fresh content to gain attention and prevents a few popular podcasts from monopolizing the market. Tristan Harris emphasizes that competing for engagement can lead to a fallacy, as it often rewards addictive and attention-seeking content rather than what is true or meaningful. Similarly, Twitter's engagement feed, which shows what people are clicking on and retweeting the most, is more successful at capturing attention than a reverse chronological feed. Ultimately, the conversation highlights the importance of balancing organic communication and preventing manipulation for addictive purposes.

    The harmful consequences of the tech industry's race for attention

    The race for attention among tech companies is leading to harmful consequences for society. Companies like Netflix, YouTube, and TikTok are constantly competing to capture our attention by implementing addictive features, such as autoplay countdowns and instant video play. This constant pursuit of our attention leads to a flood of content that may not align with what is truly important or beneficial. Furthermore, the power of these companies' algorithms makes it difficult for users to exercise self-control and resist the addictive nature of these platforms. Ultimately, this conversation highlights the need to address the asymmetry of power between users and tech companies and find a balance that promotes a healthier information environment.

    Manipulative Algorithms and the Concern for User Well-being

    Social media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, use algorithms that create personalized experiences based on user engagement. These algorithms build a digital avatar or "voodoo doll" of each user, which is manipulated to keep them hooked on the platform. For example, if a teenage girl watches dieting videos, the platform may recommend anorexia videos because they tend to be more engaging. This raises concerns about the impact of these recommendations on vulnerable individuals, especially young people or those who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction. Despite efforts to address specific issues, the overall recommendation system still tends to promote content from the "crazy town" section of the platform, without considering the potential harm it may cause.

    The Manipulative Influence of Social Media Platforms

    Technology systems, particularly social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, have taken control of human choice by controlling the information people receive. These platforms use algorithms to recommend content that will capture and hold people's attention, often leading them down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and sensationalized content. This manipulative business model, implemented around 2012, prioritizes engagement and views over providing a balanced and high-quality experience for users. As a result, people's perception of reality becomes distorted, and their beliefs and actions are influenced by the information they are fed through these platforms. It is crucial to be aware of this control and critically evaluate the basis of our beliefs and choices in an increasingly technologically-driven society.

    The corrupt information funnel and the impact of social media on mental health

    The information funnel in our society has become corrupted, functioning like the flint water supply for our minds. There is an increasing trend of articles being written about negative tweets made by random individuals about celebrities. These articles solely aim to gain attention, highlighting the arbitrary nature of our values-blind system. Prince Harry and Meghan have shown interest in these issues as Meghan has personally faced intense criticism and hate. The conversation also shed light on the negative impact of social media on mental health, especially for teenagers and young girls. Our minds are naturally inclined towards negativity, making it easier for hate to spread and form hate mobs. It is crucial to learn to not give attention to negative comments and criticism, as it can affect our psychological well-being and reputation.

    The Impact of Social Media and Technology on Teenagers: Navigating the Consequences and Vulnerabilities

    Social media platforms and technology have a tremendous impact on individuals, especially teenagers, who are unaware of the consequences of their actions. The lack of guidance and experience in navigating this influence leaves them vulnerable to reputational harm and drama. Moreover, the asymmetrical relationship between users and technology companies exacerbates the problem, as these executives themselves do not allow their own children to use social media. The conversation highlights the need for ethical practices and a more balanced approach to technology, emphasizing the importance of tools and empowerment rather than manipulation and addiction. Even if privacy concerns are addressed, the underlying issues of polarization, addiction, mental health problems, and the breakdown of truth remain, indicating the urgent need for change.

    The Attention Extraction Paradigm: A Threat to Democracy and Social Fabric.

    There is a fundamental issue with the attention extraction paradigm that dominates social media platforms. Tristan Harris emphasizes that just as climate change affects various phenomena, the attention extraction paradigm affects different aspects of our social fabric, such as shortening attention spans, polarization, and the breakdown of truth. This phenomenon is fueled by the business models of these companies, which rely on extracting more of our attention to fuel their growth. This poses a threat to democracy as it debases the substrate from which independent views and meaningful choices are supposed to arise. While there are signs of change, such as antitrust cases against Google, the true harm caused by these platforms and the warping of our society is still to be adequately addressed by Congress.

    The Dangers of Social Media: Manipulation, Polarization, and Spread of Fake News

    Social media platforms, such as Facebook, have become powerful sources of information and news, but their policies and regulations are still evolving. The challenge lies in determining when online content crosses the line and causes offline harm. Manipulation and echo chambers are prevalent, where people only hear and interact with like-minded individuals, creating a decentralized cult factory. Facebook's actions, such as their Free Basics program, have led to asymmetric access to information, contributing to the spread of fake news, even resulting in genocides in some countries. The responsibility to fix the societal issues caused by these platforms falls on Facebook, but their lack of language proficiency and limited understanding of different cultures makes it difficult to effectively filter content.

    The far-reaching impact of social media platforms on individuals and societies

    The impact of social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp extends far beyond the users who actively engage with them. The spread of fake news and misinformation on these platforms has led to real-world consequences in countries like Myanmar and India, where violence and persecution have been fueled by manipulated narratives. Even if individuals choose to abstain from using these platforms, they are still affected by the decisions and actions of those who do. The global implications of social media's influence are far-reaching, with Facebook managing multiple elections each year and potentially lacking adequate resources to address the problems it has created. The convenience and profitability of these platforms have come at the expense of quality information and responsible communication.

    The damaging effects of the attention economy and the urgent need for change.

    The attention economy driven by social media platforms is promoting and amplifying extreme views and polarizing content. In this system, bad speech leads to even worse speech and more extreme versions of the same view, as platforms prioritize getting attention over offering balanced perspectives. Thinkers who can present opposing arguments and foster synthesis are not rewarded or widely followed. The conversation highlights the urgent need to recognize the damaging effects of this attention economy, which undermines democratic processes and promotes harmful polarization. It emphasizes the importance of changing the incentive structure, supporting alternative platforms, and regulating existing ones to create a healthier information environment. This is not a rejection of technology, but a call to rethink the business models that drive social media platforms and prioritize responsible information sharing.

    Unveiling the addictive and manipulative nature of social media platforms

    Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are designed to be addictive and manipulative. Tristan Harris and Joe Rogan discuss how these platforms create an attention casino where the house always wins, and users often find themselves mindlessly scrolling through uninteresting content. They question whether these mediums are constructive in solving real-world problems and whether the constant pursuit of likes and validation is worth it. Tristan Harris emphasizes the need for change and compares it to the environmental movement, suggesting that we need to protect our attention and prioritize the well-being of users over profit. To create a pure and positive internet, we may need to limit the invasive algorithms and advertising, similar to how we protect the environment for future generations.

    Rethinking Our Relationship with Technology

    Our reliance on social media and technology, fueled by infinite growth profit models, poses significant challenges. Unlike clear-cut issues like environmental protection, the negative impact of constant algorithmic manipulation and addictive features on our mental well-being may not be immediately apparent. However, as the only species capable of self-awareness, we have the power to address and mitigate these issues. By recognizing and naming our biases and vulnerabilities, we can regain agency over our own attention and actions. It is crucial to foster a new cultural norm that prioritizes conscious use of technology, backed by policies and protocols at the individual, family, and societal levels. Building communities and creating group migrations away from exploitative platforms can withstand the pressure of exclusion and facilitate healthier online experiences. Ultimately, it is our collective responsibility to redefine and shape our relationship with technology.

    Building ethical social media alternatives and raising global awareness to address the negative consequences of current platforms.

    There is a growing movement to build social media alternatives that do not rely on unethical algorithms. Tristan Harris mentions several platforms that are attempting to create a new kind of social media experience. This is significant because it shows that people are becoming more aware and disgusted by the current state of affairs. However, it's acknowledged that addressing the negative consequences of platforms like Facebook is a difficult and complex problem to solve. To make a meaningful change, there needs to be a global awareness and understanding of the issue. The documentary film that Tristan Harris mentions has reached audiences in 190 countries and 30 languages, sparking optimism and mobilization efforts around the world. While there are challenges to overcome in reaching all countries and dialects, progress is being made through movements and regulations in different parts of the world. Similar to how regulating lead improved societal IQ, addressing the problems of social media can enhance our collective problem-solving capacity.

    The Impact of Social Media on Societal IQ and National Security

    Social media has a significant impact on our societal IQ and the ability to solve problems. It distorts our ideas, fills us with misinformation and false narratives, and makes it impossible to have compromise, conversation, and shared understanding. This ultimately drops our societal IQ to zero, hindering our ability to address critical issues like human trafficking, poverty, and climate change. However, there are examples like Taiwan, which has built a digital democratic social media system that encourages unlikely consensus and boosts shared views. It is crucial to recognize that social media poses a national security risk, as it leaves our digital borders wide open and vulnerable to influence and disinformation campaigns from various countries.

    The Role of Social Media in Manipulating Internal Conflicts

    The United States is currently facing unprecedented levels of destabilization and polarization. With the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, foreign actors have found it easier than ever to manipulate internal tensions within the country. There is a significant incentive for these actors to drive up conflict and prompt physical violence on the streets. One method they employ is the creation of funny memes that mock certain aspects of society and pit people against each other. The challenge lies in addressing this issue, as these actors often amplify existing voices within society rather than creating entirely fake news stories. Additionally, social media platforms face the challenge of dealing with an immense scale of fake accounts, sometimes resulting in the unintentional removal of genuine accounts. Overall, this conversation highlights the need to recognize and address the artificial motivations behind conflicts in the digital age.

    The negative impacts of social media and the need for individual awareness and potential solutions

    Social media platforms have become tools of manipulation for adversaries like Russia and China. They exploit the lack of moderation to spread misinformation and control public discourse. This has led to a pervasive and unprecedented psychological experiment on humanity, as we are constantly bombarded with addictive and distracting digital content. To combat this, it is crucial for individuals to be aware of the manipulative tactics used by these platforms. Taking breaks from social media, or even adopting simpler devices like the Light phone, can help reduce dependence and weaken the harmful influence of the attention economy. Additionally, Apple's commitment to user privacy and their ability to enforce regulations on the attention economy make them a potential solution to mitigate the negative impacts of social media.

    Prioritizing Social Outcomes over Attention Capture in Technology Companies

    There is a need for a shift in the way technology companies prioritize their revenue streams. Tristan Harris suggests that governments could invest in the app store to support apps that focus on social outcomes, such as learning programs and schools, rather than those that solely capture attention and monetize addictive behaviors. The goal is to redirect more financial support towards apps that benefit people and society. However, Joe Rogan expresses concerns about the difficulty of getting people to break away from their addictive behaviors. Harris shares his experiences working at Google, where he attempted to bring attention to the negative consequences of persuasive technology but faced resistance in implementing change. The conversation highlights the importance of protecting what is truly important to us and finding ways to prioritize human well-being over addictive and distracting technology.

    Realigning incentives for user well-being in technology companies: a personalized approach

    The incentives and financial rewards need to be realigned in order to encourage technology companies to prioritize user well-being over addiction. Tristan Harris emphasizes the importance of designing platforms that truly help users, rather than pushing them down endless rabbit holes. He suggests a more personalized approach, where platforms recommend relevant resources and services based on individual needs. The idea of a monthly subscription model is discussed, but both Harris and Joe Rogan acknowledge the challenge of getting users to pay for something that is currently free. However, they also recognize the need for qualitative improvement and the potential for a more productive and rewarding digital experience. Ultimately, they highlight the importance of using technology to enhance people's lives and promote a healthier relationship with digital platforms.

    The Concerns of Gaming Addiction, the Potential of a Neutral Social Media Platform, and the Importance of Accountability

    There is a growing concern regarding the addictive nature of certain games and their impact on children. Joe Rogan and Tristan Harris discuss the issue of children spending excessive amounts of money on games like Roblox, resulting in huge bills for parents. However, they also highlight that these games, at least, do not change children's perspectives of the world. They then delve into the possibility of companies like Apple rethinking social media by creating a more neutral and privacy-focused platform. Tristan suggests that Apple's iMessage and iCloud could serve as a foundation for this new kind of social media, enabling easier sharing of information among small groups of friends. The conversation also touches on antitrust issues and the need for more openness and incentives for companies to change the way we engage with technology and social media. Additionally, they discuss the importance of governments implementing regulations and requiring tech giants like Google and Facebook to pay for the damage they have caused, such as hollowing out journalism. Joe and Tristan emphasize finding a balance between holding these companies accountable and avoiding excessive socialism.

    Addressing the Costs of the Free Business Model and the Rise of Digital Democracies

    Society must address the unsustainable costs of a free business model that downgrades attention spans, mental health, and the ability to agree as a democracy. To maintain a future where digital democracy prevails over digital authoritarianism, we must learn from countries like Taiwan and Estonia who are successfully implementing digital democracies. China's development of its own operating system, along with its unchecked rules and regulations, presents concerns about potential backdoors and spying. The existential threats we face, such as environmental issues and dangerous exponential technologies, require individual responsibility and collective action. Despite the challenges, it is encouraging that millions of people have been introduced to these problems, highlighting the need for a collective movement. Additionally, the advancement of technology, including virtual influencers and AI-generated music, poses risks of preference for the virtual over the real. Recognizing and understanding our own biases and vulnerabilities is crucial to navigate this evolving technological landscape.

    Challenging the Impact of Technology: Loss of Autonomy and the Power of Artificial Intelligence

    There is a need to challenge the current trajectory of technology and its impact on our lives. Both Tristan Harris and Joe Rogan discuss the dangers of technology becoming ingrained in our daily existence, leading to loss of autonomy and control. They draw parallels with historical examples, such as the abolition of slavery, where collective movements and consciousness led to significant change. Tristan Harris emphasizes the importance of not prioritizing economic growth over addressing societal concerns, whether they are environmental or technological. The conversation raises concerns about the power of artificial intelligence and the potential for it to manipulate our emotions and behaviors. The implication is that if we fail to take action now, we may find ourselves immersed in a virtual reality that hinders our ability to discern truth from fiction. It is crucial for society to be proactive in reclaiming our autonomy and ensuring that technology serves us rather than the other way around.

    The Potential Dangers of AI and the Importance of Consciousness and Values in Shaping our Future

    Humans have the ability to create and innovate, but we must be cautious of the potential dangers and consequences of artificial intelligence (AI). While AI may not possess consciousness like humans do, there is a concern that machines without values or choice could ultimately control and shape our future. It is important for us to reflect on our own consciousness and the impact we have on the world. We should strive for an enlightened society that values wisdom, sustainability, and harmony. As we continue to evolve, we must question and redefine our values in order to create a future that is beneficial for all, avoiding the pitfalls of win-lose scenarios. Ultimately, we should appreciate human existence and strive for peace with ourselves and the world around us.

    The Importance of Authentic Connections, Skepticism Towards Technology, and Finding Peace Within

    Our connection to others and the world around us is vital for a sustainable and fulfilling life. Tristan Harris suggests that authentic connections resonate with us on a biological level, and he believes that societies with stronger connections are more sustainable. Joe Rogan expresses skepticism towards the Dolly Llama and highlights the importance of finding peace with ourselves. They also discuss the potential dangers of technology and the overwhelming distractions it brings. The conversation ends with a powerful quote from Neil Postman's book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," which warns about the dangers of becoming a society obsessed with trivial distractions. Ultimately, they emphasize the need for awareness and optimism in navigating the challenges of our modern world.

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