(Breather) I enjoyed an excellent article on the Medium.com titled, “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist”, written by Tristan Harris. His bio says: Co-founder, Center for Humane Technology, Ex-Google Design Ethicist, CEO of Apture (acquired by Google), Philosopher, Entrepreneur, Friend, Human.
Quoting from the article, “Tristan was a Product Philosopher at Google until 2016 where he studied how technology affects a billion people’s attention, wellbeing and behavior. Started a Center for Humane Technology and the movement called Time Well Spent.”
The article identifies 10 ways in which technology is hijacking our minds and quite likely ruining our lives, along with ways we can identify these issues and take corrective action. Tristan starts out making the astute observation that we usually only reference the positive attributes technology (e.g., “Google Maps gives you precise verbal and map directions for wherever you want to go; Yelp give you restaurant reviews”), instead of how this stuff things might be potentially harmful (e.g., using GPS technology compromises your natural sense of direction). Harris compares app design to how a magician operates, since both seek to exploit our “blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception.” That’s a nasty accusation, but you will learn how accurate it is when we proceed through these 10, gnarly, scary and highly disturbing ways in which tech hijacks your mind. Briefly, the list is:
- The illusion of free choice: “technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones.” Harris says they may not align with our true needs. Simple example, the bike shop is having a sale. You don’t need any gear but you are enticed to shop because of the sale.
- The slot machine concept of intermittent variable rewards: Slots are highly addictive, as are mobile devices, because we are getting fresh and surprising stimulation each time we engage. Could this be the same for abusive relationship dynamics where you keep coming back for more abuse hoping that maybe today will be a good day?
- FOKU (fear of keeping up. Foku too!), FOMO (Fear of missing out), FOMSI (Fear of missing something important). This is why we don’t unsubscribe from boring stuff (might miss a sale!) or turn off boring athletic events on TV (might miss a comeback). It’s also why we suffer from disastrous consequences of consumerism mentality and keeping up with the Joneses. Check the book Affluenze for more on this.
- Social Approval: We like when we get more followers and when people accept our friend requests. “So when Marc tags me, he’s actually responding to Facebook’s suggestion, not making an independent choice. But through design choices like this, Facebook controls the multiplier for how often millions of people experience their social approval online.”
- Social Reciprocity (Tit-for-tat): Quoting from the article, “You do me a favor — I owe you one next time. You say, “thank you”— I have to say “you’re welcome.” You send me an email— it’s rude not to get back to you.”
- Bottomless bowls, Infinite Feeds, and Autoplay: Remember when you could go to YouTube and play the video of your choice and be done with it? Not any more. Ditto for Netflix. Bottomless bowls refers to a famous experiment where people ate more soup when the bowl had a secret trap door to auto-refill it from the bottom.
- Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery: App makers like to, “heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. Harris says this is, “maximizing interruptions in the name of business creates a tragedy of the commons, ruining global attention spans and causing billions of unnecessary interruptions each day.” His Time Well Spent movement addresses the issue by demanding better design features with social media.
- Bundling Your Reasons with Their Reasons: Harris observes that the top two reasons for visiting the grocery store are to buy milk and visit pharmacy. Hence, this stuff is typically located in the back of the store, so you pass buying options. Ditto for the registration desk in casino hotels.
- Inconvenient Choices: Harris describes just how difficult it is to cancel a New York Times subscription. Ever tried to delete a Facebook account? Many hoops to jump through.
- Forecasting errors and “Foot in the Door” strategies: The apps and social media sites have assorted devious ways to lure you in and keep you there for a long time. Think of the clickbait that accompanies so many innocent Internet articles. Harris explains that this is why he offers an “estimated reading time” at the start of all his articles. He is respecting your valuable time as a reader and says, “In a Time Well Spent internet, choices could be framed in terms of projected cost and benefit, so people were empowered to make informed choices by default, not by doing extra work.”
This tech hijacking is a serious matter demanding your serious attention and discipline. Hopefully, the show, this written summary, Harris’s original article on The Medium, and the humanetech.com website will help you fight a valiant battle against tech hijacking your life.
Brad is trying to increase awareness of our behavior patterns and addiction to technology. [00.33]
We’re always focused on the benefits of what the APP does. [06:44]
Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities, and limits of people’s perception so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. [08:09]
Free Choice is an illusion you think you have. [09:39]
We easily become addicted to intermittent variable rewards. [10:32]
We are afraid of missing out. [12:41]
Social approval and social reciprocity are fundamental human drives. [15:04]
The concept of bottomless bowls, infinite feeds, and autoplay is another way they get you. [17:17]
Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive. [19:29]
Another way apps hijack you is by taking your reasons for visiting the app. [20:43]
Get Over Yourself Podcast
Brad: 00:08 Welcome to the get over yourself podcast. This is author and athlete, Brad Kearns, discovering ways to be healthy, fit and happy in hectic, high stress modern life. So let’s slow down and take a deep breath. Take a cold plunge and expertly balanced that competitive intensity with an appreciation of the journey. That’s the theme of the show. Here we go.
Brad: 04:27 Yes, Pitch Perfect movies series was pretty good, man. Come on. You got to admit, don’t be shy. Don’t be embarrassed. The third and last one was pushing the edges of ridiculousness, but fat Amy stole the show. One of the greatest acting performances of all time in Hollywood. Worth watching. Yup. Pitch Perfect Three. Let’s get down to business and we have some serious stuff to talk about. Tech addiction, man. Bradley is trying to increase awareness, bring subconscious behavior patterns into awareness so that they can be altered and improved away from the current state of bad habits and mindless addiction to technology. So read a great article on the medium.com. I keep pitching this website because they put out fantastic content and you’re going to read like 10 or 15 articles and then they’re going to say, hey, you got to pay us 50 bucks a year.
Brad: 05:37 So I pop because they do crank out really, really interesting content on a variety of topics. This was an article called How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind. Written by a magician and Google design ethicist named Tristan Harris. He now operates this program called the center for humane technology. So they’re trying to convince the technology makers, the pillars of the modern economy to do shit right and quit bugging us with manipulative strategies to call more of our attention and get us further addicted to tech. At the beginning of the article, it has the title, a little bio line and then it says estimated reading time, 12 minutes. This will be important later as we cover the topics of Tristin and this guy. Interesting. He’s the Co founder for the Center for Humane Technology. He used to work at Google as a design ethicist, also called himself a product philosopher.
Brad: 06:44 So I think figuring out how to present this technology to the end user probably is a good description of what he was doing there. He then started studying how technology affects a billion people’s attention, wellbeing and behavior. Probably not good in many cases. So now he’s working on this movement called time well spent to make the most of technology and not let it ruin your life. Here’s a summary of some of the stuff he talks about in the article. Great opening point, opening statement that we’re always focused on the benefits of what the APP does. Tell me about Google maps. Well, you put in your destination, you push start and a voice tells you every single turn what to do, what’s the best route. Wow, that’s awesome. Yes, it is freaking awesome. And same with all the many other apps and the services that they provide, but we’re always focused on the benefits of the technology, instead of spending a few moments wondering or figuring out how they might compromise our health and enjoyment of life. Hmm. So let’s do that. You know what product designers do on purpose? These are very, very smart people. Uh, they try to exploit you. They play upon your psychological vulnerabilities, both conscious and unconscious in a challenge or, or a battle to grab your attention.
Brad: 08:09 So this guy comes to the table, uh, from the world of magic. He was a magician as a kid and he notes, this is quoting: “Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities, and limits of people’s perception so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. And then once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.” Remember that movie Burt Wonderstone with Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell. Oh God, that was a great movie about magicians and then Now You See It. Remember that other movie? I think they did. Now you see at one now you see it too fascinating. I love the old time magic Houdini, the sleight of hand people. Not sure. I’m a big one for the Las Vegas show with all the music and the pageantry and then the person gets sawed in half and disappears. Uh Gosh. I saw a show by this Guy Alex Ramon, check him out on Youtube. I think he plays a lot in Reno and he was absolutely unbelievable. And then he comes and engages with the audience after signing autographs and stuff. And I was so excited because I figured out one of his tricks. So I went up to him and I said, hey dude, do you mind if I tell you that I figured out one of your tricks and you can confirm it? He’s like, sure, go ahead. You know, I said, well, when you made that iPad disappear, I think all you did was fold the iPad up and to be one of the sides of the box that you opened in the box was empty, right? And he goes, nope. But I certainly would tell you if you were right. I’m like, Dang man. Okay, great show. Thank you for the magicians.
Brad: 09:39 Anyway, uh, Tristan Harris bring in that magician insight into the article and he proceeds to describe 10 normally scary, highly disturbing ways in which tech hijacks your mind. And then he offers some tips about how to deal with it. So you don’t have to memorize all these, but it definitely will give you a fresh perspective as we go through this. And maybe these will come to mind over time. The first one, he identifies as the illusion of free choice. So we think we have free choice when we have numerous options, but in reality quote: “B,y shaping the menus that we pick from technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones.” Ah, for example, when you push restaurants and then the button to find all the restaurants near you, it’s not really all the restaurants.
Brad: 10:32 It’s the ones that are appearing on the map. Okay. Number two, the slot machine concept of what’s called intermittent variable rewards. This is one of the most powerful ways to generate or illicit addiction in the human. We easily become addicted to intermittent variable rewards. That’s why we check our phones on average 150 times per day. This is why I called it the slot machine concept quote from the article: “Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball movies and theme parks combined. Disneyland. You’re off the back MLB the world series. The movie business ,Hollywood combined makes less money than people putting coins into the machines relative to other kinds of gambling”. Still quoting, “people get problematically involved with slot machines three to four times faster according to research from NYU, Professor Shul, author of Addicted by Design.” Ouch. Can you understand why it’s so compelling and alluring to engage in something that delivers intermittent variable rewards?
Brad: 11:48 Of course the slot machine, you have a chance of winning the Jackpot, but also when you reach for your phone 150 times a day, you are looking for fresh novel stimulation that gives you the dopamine burst, a new text message or what have you. That’s some scary shit. To me, I’m really focused on that one and how I want to pull away from my engagement or desire for intermittent variable rewards. I also drew a parallel, this is now me talking away from the article. Could that be the same for a dysfunctional and emotionally abusive relationship? You know what I mean? Where you’re walking on eggshells and you’re hoping that today’s going to be a good day and just wondering if someone’s going to light their fuse off if they come home having had a bad day or drank too much or whatever the dysfunctions going on. I think we oftentimes get drawn into these dysfunctional relationships due to that concept of intermittent variable rewards.
Brad: 12:41 Number three on the list of Tristan’s ways that technology hijacks our mind is I made this up. Folk You (fear of keeping up), also known as fear of missing out or fear of missing something important. F O M S I. Actually, I didn’t make up folk. You, Dr Elisha Goldstein did, who I did a podcast with. Uh, he didn’t call it folk Q, he called it fear of keeping up. And I said, folk you. And he’s like, what? Eh? Yeah. So when you’re trying to unsubscribe to get fewer emails delivered into your inbox, you default over to the mindset of consumerism that you might, might, might miss out on getting some kind of awesome discount and deal. So we’re very reluctant to unsubscribe or choose out of opportunities. My favorite counter example of this, my friend, Doctor Steven Kobrine back, what was this early just out of college, you know, got a job on a nice budget, bought a car, a nice little Honda, cut a sun roof open, uh, from an aftermarket provider.
Brad: 13:55 Thought that would be fun to have a sunroof, and then went to the car wash or had a rainy day and the thing leaks. So he took it back to the aftermarket provider of sunroofs, Sunroofs, Etc., whatever they were called. I’d love to bad mouth him if I remembered the name. Anyway, I think they fixed it and again, went to the car wash and it leaked and instead of going back, he went to the Honda dealer and had it done right., paying a large sum of extra money when you could have of course gone back and demanded the original, uh, supplier fix his bad work. And I said, wow, why did you do that? And he said, peace of mind. There’s a price that you pay for peace of mind. Love it. You know what his license plate is? No worries. N O space, W O. R. Y. S, he’s had it for, I think 30 years registered in California. Sorry, you can’t get that license plate. But you can adopt Dr. Stephen’s wonderful mindset that he lives every single day. Anyway, a good quotes from Tristin talking about, it’s amazing how quickly once we let go of that fear, we wake up from the illusion that we’re afraid of missing out because we don’t miss what we don’t see. Oh, cool.
Brad: 15:04 Number four, working our way through trying to stick to the breathers show pace, social approval. These are fundamental human drives. As Deepak Chopra says, people want attention and acceptance as they are. So when someone sends you a friend request, you reciprocate. When someone sends you an email, you write back. Thank you. And therefore you engage with technology to an extreme amount because you’re trying to keep up with the conventions of social approval. Of course you don’t want to miss out. And the author gives the example of a Facebook when you change your profile photo. I didn’t know this the first time I saw my profile photo and I’m like, ah, it could be time for an update. I think that photo’s maybe 10 years old, Hey, what am I trying to hide? So I uploaded a, um, a newer photo and of course that gets plastered on the home page as this post that goes out to every single person that I’m connected with on Facebook. It says, Brad Kearns changed his profile photo. Oh my gosh. How embarrassing.
Brad: 16:13 Anyway, number five is social reciprocity. Tit for tat. I kind of blended these together. Sorry. But you know, getting back to someone saying thank you, all that stuff where you’re just keeping up, keeping up, keeping up. Okay. And Jeez. I’m guilty of that. I hate ignoring emails without an ad, a reply, a reply of the affirmative or a quick confirmation or a thank you. Because I personally feel a little butt hurt as Mia Moore would say when I send a long, thoughtful email to someone and then don’t even bother replying. Then I write, “Hey did you get my email?” I just spent 1200 words given you a customized diet, exercise and sleeping tips from the bottom of my heart after picking up our exchange at the live gathering. And I’m lucky if the person says, good stuff. Thanks. Exclamation point. I’m like, no, that’s not good enough. After all the time and energy I spent. I was looking for something more. Sorry Pal. Bring that. Bring your a game. I brought my a game to you. Anyway, that’s social reciprocity and butt hurt list. We’ll add that.
Brad: 17:17 Okay. Number six, the concept of bottomless bowls, infinite feeds, and auto play. This is new. Remember when Youtube didn’t play the next video? So you searched youtube for uh oh, here’s one six dog. Greyhound race turns into seven. Go type that into youtube. It’s one of the funniest videos. Oh my gosh, you’ll love it from the animal world. I play it over and over. It’s got 100,000 views, but like a thousand of them are mine. Uh, but anyway, back in the day you’d search youtube for a video. You’d play it, you’d have a good laugh and then the screen would freeze. And now they have autoplay to draw you in to watch the next video. A, he calls it the bottomless bowls concept because there’s a famous science experiments, psychological experiment where they had a study subjects enjoying a bowl of soup that had a fake bottom, like a trap door that automatically refilled the bowl. And they found that the diners consumed 73% more calories when they had the bottomless bowl. That’s how mindless they were just trying to finish off their bowl of soup that kept refilling kind of like the candles that, uh, reignite the trick candles on the birthday.
Brad: 18:29 Okay. Geez. What about clickbait? I mean, you’re trying to read an article and then you finish or you get two thirds of the way down and I hate these salacious headlines that pull you off. I disciplined myself to try not to click them. Uh, but sometimes I do. I just read one where some dude, uh, decided to try and survive Niagara Falls, uh, just jumped himself in the river, floated down there and went for it. Uh, people have been known to do it over the, uh, history of Niagara Falls as an amusement area. And this guy survived and he got great attention and he signed up with the circus. I believe he was suicidal down and out before he made this attempt. He wanted to get attention. It worked. And he kind of had a little run there, uh, of fame and his 15 minutes. And then like years later, he tried it again. He couldn’t figure out any other way to pull out of his lifestyle. Right? Uh, and this time he died. So how about that for a distraction? Now you don’t have to read the stupid story. You can just hear it from me.
Brad: 19:29 Number seven, instant interruption versus respectful delivery. Quoting from the article,: “Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered a synchronously, like an email into an inbox that you have to proactively engage with.” [inaudible] it’s also in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. Aye Yai Yai. So choose out of that stuff, man, but don’t buy into it. Uh, here’s another quote from the article. Maximizing interruption in the name of business creates a tragedy of the Commons; ruining global attention spans and causing billions of unnecessary interruption each day. That’s why I want you to go check out the Time Well Spent movement that Tristan founded a humane tech.com is the website where you can find out about people trying to do something about that.
Brad: 20:29 I mean, think about it. I know you’re personally annoyed when you get instant messages and things like that, but the billions, the magnification of this, uh, across the globe, that’s something of deep concern. We should all be thinking about.
Brad: 20:43 Number eight from Tristan Harris. Bundling your reasons with their reasons. Quote, “Another way app’s hijack you is by taking your reasons for visiting the app, such as to perform a task and make business reasons, maximizing how much we consume once we’re there. This example is from the article. I’m not coding anymore, but did you know the two biggest reasons for people visiting the grocery store or to get to the pharmacy and to buy milk number one and number two on family feud or if you ever playing, guess where they put the pharmacy and the milk bottles that’s right in the back, so you have to walk through all the other items to get there. Same with the casinos. Where’s the registration desk and the checkout? It’s past the casino floor. Oh my gosh. And then the author ponders. What would happen if we had a pop up menu of choices when we went to visit Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, where you could just decide to, for example, compose a tweet without having to land on your homepage and get drawn into the engagement. Interesting point.
Brad: 21:59 Hijack number nine is inconvenient choices. We’re told that it’s enough for businesses to quote, make choices available, but they make it really inconvenient. He gives an example of the New York Times and when you decide to cancel your subscription to the New York Times, they always let you have that free choice to cancel at any time. And then quoting the article instead of just doing it, when you hit cancel subscription, they send you an email with information on how to cancel your account by calling a phone number that’s only open at certain times. Uh, my personal example here is buying something that wasn’t quite right and then I have to go return it to the store and I’m too tired or too lazy. So I ended up not returning it to the store. That’s why I love Trader Joe’s. When you go in there and say, Hey, I bought a watermelon, I cut it open and it was all rotten. They say, take another one. They don’t need you to bring back the watermelon. They just trust you.
Brad: 23:00 And then finally, hijack number 10, forecasting errors for how much time you’re going to waste. This is called the foot in the door strategy. That’s why it was so cool at the top of the article. Tristan Harris said, estimated reading time. 12 minutes. Wow. And he proposes what if they had that on all the click bait that was a distracting you when you visited the article that you intended to read. And it said, check out the latest celebrity gossip, estimated reading time, uh, the photo slideshow of millionaires homes, estimated viewing time, 12 minutes, Aye Yai Yai. Uh, quote, people don’t intuitively forecasts the true cost of a click when it’s presented to them. This sales people using the foot in the door technique by asking a small, innocuous request to begin with an escalating from there. Quote, why don’t you stay a while is what they’re basically saying, not in so many words. And Tristan says, that’s why I add estimated reading time to the top of my posts. When you put the true cost of a choice in front of people, you’re treating your users or audience with dignity and respect in a time well spent, internet choices could be framed in terms of projected cost and benefit. So people were empowered to make informed choices by default, not by doing extra work. Oh, okay. So go visit his Center for Humane Technology. Be more mindful of the concepts like the magician manipulating your attention or the intermittent variable rewards when you reach for your phone 150 times a day. And more thoughtful about how technology might best enhance your life without compromising your stress levels, your health, and your attention on good old real live interactions with humans or with nature or things like that that are totally compromised today. Thank you for listening to the breather show .
Brad: 25:34 Thank you for listening to the show. We would love your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org and we would also love if you could leave a rating and a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. I know it’s a hassle. You have to go to desktop, iTunes, click on the tab that says ratings and reviews, and then click to rate the show anywhere from five to five stars and it really helps spread the word so more people can find the show and get over themselves because they need to. Thanks for doing it.