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Former Google Executive Warns Smartphones Keep Us Hooked


And I'm Steve Inskeep with a man who changed his mind about the Internet. His name is Tristan Harris. He once ran an Internet firm, and then Google bought him out. Suddenly, he was at work for them, for the big guys. And he was among those who believed that the Internet was a force for good. Now, Harris says, he has changed his mind. He is founder of the Center for Humane Technology, which is urging people this week to be aware of how they are manipulated.

TRISTAN HARRIS: I always had this dream that technology was an empowering tool - you know, a bicycle for our minds. And then I, you know, in college, studied at this lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab that basically taught engineering students how to think about technology in a different way, in terms of how it can persuade us to do things. And I realized that it was less and less about actually trying to benefit people and more and more about just, how do we keep people hooked?

INSKEEP: That's a beautiful analogy - the bicycle for the mind. I think you're telling me that you discovered, instead, that technology was a self-driving car that is taking us places without asking first. Isn't it true that even if the phone is manipulative - the apps on the phone are manipulative - people are still making a choice?

HARRIS: Well, I think choice is a really interesting thing. You know, when I was a kid, I was a magician. And you know, you say, hey, so you picked, you know, whether it was a red card or a black card, did you not? And then you say that's right. And then they say, you picked whether it was a number card or a face card, did you not? And so therefore, you chose this card, correct? I didn't influence your choice in any way. And yet, at the same time, I know as a magician exactly what card you picked. And just like a magician, these products design menus in which all of the choices lead to more time on the screen.

INSKEEP: Are you trying to be the equivalent of a cigarette warning label?

HARRIS: No. We are trying to completely change the incentives away from addiction. And the way to do that is to change the business model which is possible for Facebook and other companies to make more money with subscription-based models. I think so many people would switch to that because it would be so much better for them at the beginning. So many people feel so distracting to have, you know, every aspect of the design to be built to distract them, to pull them in, to suck them in. You're not paying to remove the ads. You're paying to have the thousand engineers in the other side of the screen see you as the customer instead of seeing your eyeballs as the customer for advertisers.

INSKEEP: Is there, in a sense, a hardware problem, though? Because the phone is right there. It's in your pocket. It's right with you. You may even sleep beside it. Since it's open, I'll check my text messages. And since I've done that, I'll check Facebook and Twitter and a couple of other things.

HARRIS: Yeah, it's a very hard problem to solve. And actually, you know, one of the key players that can really make a difference here is not the attention companies. They're locked into this race to capture as much attention as possible. But I've been saying for four years that our biggest friends here and perhaps our only hope here are companies like Apple and Samsung because they make the devices, and they can design them differently. You know, one of the things we advocated for is change your phone to grayscale.

INSKEEP: I'm doing that right now. So how do I do this? I'm going to settings.

HARRIS: Opening it myself here. It's general, accessibility, display accommodations - color filters, excuse me...

INSKEEP: OK, there we go.

HARRIS: ...And then turn that on, and then the first filter is called grayscale.

INSKEEP: Done. And so this step is going to make my phone seem a little less appealing, a little less addictive.

HARRIS: If you leave it in black and white for just long enough, you'll start to get used to it, and then color will feel overwhelming. It'll actually feel like, wow, this is just too much color.

INSKEEP: That's OK. I mean, I like the black and white. It makes me feel like I'm in an old film noir. Would you be willing to go so far as to warn tech companies that if they don't address this problem, it will become a public health issue that will affect their bottom line?

HARRIS: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think this has actually already happened. Apple had several of its shareholders basically write them a letter saying you have a huge public health problem on your hand. And so I think this legal risk is actually already happening, and companies again like Apple and Samsung, whose business models are not to maximize addiction or attention, can actually do a lot to help protect against this public health problem. That's what we're advocating for.

INSKEEP: Can you foresee the day when the California attorney general, say, would file a lawsuit against Apple?

HARRIS: That could be possible. I think there's many states that would consider such a thing.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with Tristan Harris, who once worked for Google and now runs the Center for Humane Technology. Thanks.

HARRIS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Their new campaign, together with the children's advocacy group Common Sense Media, is called Truth About Tech. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.