That was how Bob Greene finished a piece more than 30 years ago in the 6 March 1985 issue edition of The Chicago Tribune under the headline: Portable Phone Tolls For Thee, America. That fall, in a longer piece for his American Beat column in Esquire, Greene reached another (I paraphrase here because the text is behind a paywall) conclusion: In the future we will be able to identify the truly powerful because we won’t be able to reach them.
I write that because in recent days I’ve been thinking a lot about smartphones and how they have changed education. Yesterday I sat down with the most recent edition of The Atlantic (the only magazine I still subscribe to) to read Bianca Bosker’s: The Binge Breaker—Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
Here are the passages that grabbed my attention and warranted the use of my highlighter. (An interesting cultural note: One of my students saw me reading, and highlighting, the article between classes and asked what I was doing. He seem perplexed that I would read a magazine as I might a text book.)
“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.
[Josh Elman, a Silicon Valley veteran with the venture-capital firm Greylock Partners] compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.
Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, [the Persuasive Technology Lab] has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill.
When LinkedIn [a particularly annoying and worthless service I’ve noticed, JH] launched, for instance, it created a hub-and-spoke icon to visually represent the size of each user’s network. That triggered people’s innate craving for social approval and, in turn, got them scrambling to connect. “Even though at the time there was nothing useful you could do with LinkedIn, that simple icon had a powerful effect in tapping into people’s desire not to look like losers,” Fogg told me.
Harris began to see that technology is not, as so many engineers claim, a neutral tool; rather, it’s capable of coaxing us to act in certain ways.
Though Harris insists he steered clear of persuasive tactics, he grew more familiar with how they were applied. He came to conceive of them as “hijacking techniques”—the digital version of pumping sugar, salt, and fat into junk food in order to induce bingeing.
Checking that Facebook friend request will take only a few seconds, we reason, though research shows that when interrupted, people take an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task.
In the end, [Harris] says, companies “stand back watching as a billion people run around like chickens with their heads cut off, responding to each other and feeling indebted to each other.”
Even so, a niche group of consultants has emerged to teach companies how to make their services irresistible. One such guru is Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, who has lectured or consulted for firms such as LinkedIn and Instagram. A blog post he wrote touting the value of variable rewards is titled Want to Hook Your Users? Drive Them Crazy. While asserting that companies are morally obligated to help those genuinely addicted to their services, Eyal contends that social media merely satisfies our appetite for entertainment in the same way TV or novels do, and that the latest technology tends to get vilified simply because it’s new, but eventually people find balance.
Six months after attending Burning Man in the Nevada desert, a trip Harris says helped him with “waking up and questioning my own beliefs,” he quietly released “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” [I can’t find a copy online, JH] a 144-page Google Slides presentation. In it, he declared, “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies”—Google, Apple, and Facebook—“had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention … We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.”
Through Time Well Spent, his advocacy group, Harris hopes to mobilize support for what he likens to an organic-food movement, but for software: an alternative built around core values, chief of which is helping us spend our time well, instead of demanding more of it.
An accordion player and tango dancer in his spare time who pairs plaid shirts with a bracelet that has presence stamped into a silver charm, Harris gives off a preppy-hippie vibe that allows him to move comfortably between Palo Alto boardrooms and device-free retreats. In that sense, he had a great deal in common with the other Unplug SF attendees, many of whom belong to a new class of tech elites “waking up” to their industry’s unwelcome side effects [Emphasis mine, JH]. For many entrepreneurs, this epiphany has come with age, children, and the peace of mind of having several million in the bank, says Soren Gordhamer, the creator of Wisdom 2.0, a conference series about maintaining “presence and purpose” in the digital age. “They feel guilty,” Gordhamer says. “They are realizing they built this thing that’s so addictive.”
Currently, though, the trend is toward deeper manipulation in ever more sophisticated forms. Harris fears that Snapchat’s tactics for hooking users make Facebook’s look quaint. Facebook automatically tells a message’s sender when the recipient reads the note—a design choice that, per Fogg’s logic, activates our hardwired sense of social reciprocity and encourages the recipient to respond. Snapchat ups the ante: Unless the default settings are changed, users are informed the instant a friend begins typing a message to them—which effectively makes it a faux pas not to finish a message you start. Harris worries that the app’s Snapstreak feature, which displays how many days in a row two friends have snapped each other and rewards their loyalty with an emoji, seems to have been pulled straight from Fogg’s inventory of persuasive tactics.
There is arguably an element of hypocrisy to the enlightened image that Silicon Valley projects, especially with its recent embrace of “mindfulness.” Companies like Google and Facebook, which have offered mindfulness training and meditation spaces for their employees, position themselves as corporate leaders in this movement. Yet this emphasis on mindfulness and consciousness, which has extended far beyond the tech world, puts the burden on users to train their focus, without acknowledging that the devices in their hands are engineered to chip away at their concentration. It’s like telling people to get healthy by exercising more, then offering the choice between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder when they sit down for a meal.
I passed copies of the article to several colleagues (including the school psychologist) under the note: scary, scary stuff… Harris’ observations are way scarier than any Hollywood horror movie.