Former Google programmer speaks out about 'brain hacking' and the addictive nature of smart phone apps

Smartphone use

Technology companies and content creators are so good at what they do - making content as engaging as possible - that a 60 minutes news report asked Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer, if there is a type of deliberate “brain hacking’ that makes gaming, apps, social media channels and “likes” truly addictive.

The surprising answer was yes. As a Silicon Valley ‘drop-out,’ Harris is clear that everything on a smartphone is designed somewhat like a slot machine that draws the user in. According to the 60-minutes interview, Harris dropped out of a master’s program at Stanford University to start a software company. Four years later, Google bought him out and hired him as a product manager. It was while working there he started to feel overwhelmed.

As an example, Harris explains that Snapchat’s most popular messaging service for teenagers is a feature called “streaks,” which shows the number of days in a row that one has sent a message back and forth with someone.

“The problem is that kids feel that they don’t want to lose their streak," he said. "So much so that when kids go on vacation they are so stressed about their streak that they actually give their password to, like, five other kids to keep their streaks going on their behalf."

Harris began to ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?

Eventually, he presented a 144-page ‘mission statement’ arguing that the constant distractions of apps and emails are “weakening our relationships to each other,” and “destroying our kids ability to focus.” It was widely read inside Google, and caught the eye of one of the founders Larry Page. But Harris said it didn’t lead to any changes and after three years he quit.

“It’s not because anyone is evil or has bad intentions. It’s because the game is getting attention at all costs. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom of the brainstem, where if I go lower on the brainstem to get you, you know, using my product, I win. But it doesn’t end up in the world we want to live in. We don’t end up feeling good about how we’re using all this stuff."

“There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible,” Harris said.

One of the interesting things about gamification and other engaging technologies Harris notes is at the same time neuroscience is being used to create dependent behavior those same techniques are being used to get people to work out using their Fitbit. So all of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good, or can be used for bad. Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask. It feels impossible. And also it’s very anti-capitalistic, this isn’t the system that we live in.”

While the story suggests that the apps themselves are programmed to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, Harris suggests that inadvertently, whether they want to or not, tech companies and content creators are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of billions of smart phone users.

“They are programming people,” Harris says. “There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money," he said.

Today, Harris travels the country trying to convince programmers and anyone else who will listen that the business model of tech companies needs to change. He wants products designed to make the best use of our time not just grab our attention.

When asked by Anderson Cooper how many Silicon Valley insiders are there speaking out like he is?

Harris responded, “Not that many.”

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