Tristan Harris on Reclaiming Attention in the Age of Distraction

In this podcast, Sam Harris sits down with Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google and founder of Time Well Spent, a group that works to bring consciousness and intentionality to our technological lives, which are undoubtedly overrun with distraction and outside manipulation. As discussed in this episode, most of us (myself included) are to some degree led around by the nose by the engineers at Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and other companies, as the current attention economy rewards clicks and eyeballs, rather than lasting satisfaction or value. Harris really wants to change the dominant conversation in Silicon Valley from topics like time on site and ad revenue to ones like how smart technology design can truly help people live more fulfilling lives. He is one of thew few people I've encountered who recognizes the importance of this problem and is committed to making technology work for us in ways that help us live the lives that we really want, which unquestionably includes spending our time well. To be clear, he is not interested in telling us whether Headspace is a better use of our time than a Weight Watchers app (which includes a subjective value judgment), but he is urging us to consciously decide how much time (if any) we would like to spend on each, rather than falling prey to whichever app screams the loudest. 

Most of us would agree that how spend our time represents what we value, but many of us might not feel great about how much time we log on something like Facebook. While we might get some momentary satisfaction out of scrolling through our news feeds for the latest outrage and political tumult, many of us later come to regret spending an inordinate amount of time on it. Apps like Moment seek to bring these facts to consciousness, forcing us to confront the cold, hard numbers of how much time we spend on our phones. In Harris' view, if we can take an honest look at statistics like these and ask ourselves "How much time per week would we like to spend on Facebook?", we can then make design choices to achieve that end. To clarify, it's not all about just avoiding our phones, as he concedes that certain apps like Headspace can make a legitimate case that they are a good use of our time. Rather, it is about creating a choice architecture that will serve our own consciously constructed goals, rather than those of advertisers and private companies. Obviously, many financial relationships (namely, the ad-based economy) will have to change if this is to be realized. Harris thinks this is a price well worth paying and I could not agree more.

As I often find myself aimlessly scrolling on Facebook even though I consciously know there are better uses of my time, I found this conversation extremely insightful and necessary. I hope you enjoy it as well.