tristan harris wants to save you from technology with inane technobabble
Iconic figureheads of various movements going off into seclusion so they can commune with the powers that be, receive their divine inspiration, and meditate on it until they understand the full meaning of the revelation that was just handed down to them in a way that could be understood by mere mortals is a staple in many religious accounts, which tend to follow the Hero’s Journey archetype. Buddha sat under a tree, focused on finding the one true path to Nirvana. Jesus wandered the desert while fasting for forty days and forty nights. Joseph Smith spent years bargaining with an angel to retrieve the gold plates he claimed he had to translate sight unseen into the Book of Mormon. You get the general idea.
In much the same way, ex-Googler Tristian Harris secluded himself to think of the best way to explain to the world how technology was corrupting it, destroying working lives, relationships, even the very notions of freedom and democracies. His revelation? He needed to start a small group to teach tech companies how to make all those notifications on your devices appear less frequently, seem less urgent, and nudge you to use apps a little less while setting up a round of tech talks in which he can claim that failure to do so is “downgrading humanity.” This is basically the same strategy as Douglas Rushkoff used to turn claims of a tech conspiracy against human workforces into a steady source of revenue.
If we were a little less charitable than Wired when describing his quest, we could say that he’s doing the tech pundit equivalent of claiming that daily light exercise could cure cancer and the powers that be are making fortunes on trying to keep you a couch potato for their selfish gains. These are sweeping generalizations based on small kernels of truth and blown completely out of proportion with grandiose language and claims in a context invented to serve his needs. Yes, it would be great if we went out for a long walk in the park every once in a while, and yes, Hulu and Netflix have zero incentive to peel you off the couch. Similarly, if we spent a lot less time on social media, or buried in time-wasting apps thanks to fewer notifications, we’d be a lot happier for it, as a growing number of studies seems to indicate.
the hidden cost of abandoning social media
However, there’s a trade-off. Leaving social media completely also means that people tend to be less politically informed and their decrease in partisanship and polarization is caused by that newfound ignorance of current events. Because so many people tend to get much of their news diet through social media channels, cutting all those channels out just means the news doesn’t reach them. Sure, it’s harder to get upset and form hardline opinions about topics like income inequality and race relations, then get in heated debates with others whose equally hardline opinions run contrary to yours when you don’t follow what’s happening with either. But it also means policies exacerbating problems in both can be adopted out of sight and out of mind.
So, in a way, all those pundits who implore us to stop using social media and talk to people instead to cure hyperpolarization are right. Unfortunately, the cure could be worse than the disease as politicians continue to mishandle and misunderstand the problems facing modern societies while we all look the other way and whistle. Certainly, no one but the Unabomber would claim that we need to throw all out smartphones and computers away, ban all software and coding, and try those who write apps by a Luddite Inquisition. But when coming out with a mission-encapsulating sound bite according to which technology is downgrading humanity, it’s going to be hard for Harris to then pitch little more than less intrusive notifications.
Fewer blinking lights or pop-ups on a screen hardly seems like a radical enough plane to save humanity from being “downgraded” to defenseless meat with eyes, while thinking that a few less news alerts for aggressive hyper-partisans will stop the balkanization created by today’s politicians’ failure to understand anything about climate change, automation, globalization, and embrace of policies based on profound misconceptions about basic fiscal realities and seriously flawed studies, seems hopelessly naïve. This is why expertise and nuance doesn’t sell. It can’t always provide simple solutions to complex problems, expressing them in a bumper sticker-friendly proclamation, and sounds like watered-down incrementalism to a very upset public fed up with things stagnating or getting worse around them.
the popular trend of blaming technology for our own flaws
Once again, it’s important to remember that technology didn’t make terrible policy and fiscal decisions or impose the rise of populism and autocracy on unwitting humans. We did all of that and more to ourselves, we just did it more efficiently because we had technology. Trickle-down economics began before the web was even invented, when the internet was just a curiosity for scientists and engineers. Populism was responsible for one of the darkest chapters in recorded history leading up to a second world war long before the first computers. Technology is not downgrading humanity, we’re simply using this as an excuse to give in to our basest urges, then blame the technology for our lack of forethought or impulse control. And in this regard, people like Harris aren’t problem solvers, they’re enablers.
Enablers are very popular, especially these days, when you can lose your job, healthcare, and retirement funds for reasons that you might not fully understand, that don’t depend on who you are as a person or as a worker. You could be a casualty of a vast, complex, uncaring, and decentralized machine in which a few numbers going the wrong way end thousands of stable livelihoods on a whim. Meanwhile, the politicians you elected do nothing because they either don’t know what to do or because back in their day, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, “only the losers got laid off.” And instead of holding the politicians to account for failing their jobs or voters for not holding the politicians accountable, enablers provide a handy scapegoat.
The so-called alt-right points to Jews, minorities, and immigrants. The far left points to large corporations, banks, and often Jews as well. Harris and anti-big tech crusaders provide a less controversial culprit in the form of near-ubiquitous technology, conveniently forgetting that we control said technology and don’t have to do whatever it tells us, even if there are companies trying to use every trick in the book to get us to click on one more button or open an app one more time. But there’s not even much evidence that their tricks work on the vast majority of the population. We use just a handful of apps beyond the pre-installed defaults on a regular basis, and TV is still edging out our time on the web, at least for the time being.
In other words, people who pretty much live on Facebook or Twitter to spout increasingly angry partisan hot takes do it because they choose to, not because Big Tech has brainwashing magic that made them surrender their lives to airtight echo chambers of fear, hate, and paranoia. But they sure wish they had an excuse, and Harris is there to tell them that they were pawns in a sinister experiment to get them addicted to this lifestyle. In reality, social media is engaged in a losing battle against very motivated scammers, propagandists, bots, partisan tribalists, and hate groups it vastly underestimated. And to admit that this is what’s actually happening means to accept that we’re the problem, which is why we’re happy to give anyone who tells us otherwise the time of day, no matter how flawed their thesis.