Former Google Engineer, “System Designed to Keep Us Hooked”
Tristan Harris is calling for a design renaissance in the tech industry. He described it in his April TED Talk. What if, in his next TED Talk, Harris credited an age-old faith tradition for helping bring about this renaissance?
Harris is a former Google design ethicist. He worked in the inner sanctum of engineers who understand how to build complex technologies. But Harris is one of the few who understands that technology is not neutral. By his own admission, he helped design Google’s tools “that are part of a system designed to keep us hooked.”
He noticed this at Silicon Valley tech conferences. During breaks, heads were buried in smartphones. Harris wondered What have I created? He sees how we lose hours lost in iPhones. We don’t spend our time wisely, so Harris launched a movement: Time Well Spent. He described it in a TEDxBrussels Talk in 2014. The goal isn’t to abandon technology. It’s to change the technology industry for the better.
In his 2017 TED Talk, Harris expands on this. “Engineers are paid to keep us glued to the screen. Instagram shows new likes one at a time, to keep us checking for more. Snapchat turns conversations into streaks we don’t want to lose. At any given moment, hundred of engineers direct what one billion people give their attention to.” Harris calls it a “race to the bottom of the brain stem” that no one wants to lose.
But there are losers. The number of technologies can expand almost infinitely. The number of hours in a day can’t. As technologies expand, attention span shrinks. I see this with my male friends. Few read lengthy books. They can’t pay attention that long.
Harris proposes three radical changes: 1) recognize that human nature is persuadable, 2) develop new models of accountability—ones that “question Big Things”—and 3) create a design renaissance, one that aligns with an accurate assessment of human nature.
What an opportunity. What if a faith community ran an innovation lab, one that translated biblical texts into the language of the technology industry? What if it helped companies discover the benefits of being “ambidextrous?” What if Harris learned how organizational ambidexterity was the best infrastructure for a design renaissance?
What if Tristan Harris’ next TED Talk included these comments?
“It was at the Ambidextrous Business Lab that I discovered how to bring about a design renaissance. It started by discovering our behavioral DNA—ought-is-can-will. We imagine work as it ought to be. I recognize there is a problem in the tech industry. I considered what can be done in the hope that we will create a better industry. Ought-is-can-will. It explained the problem I saw.
That’s because behavioral DNA is like biological DNA. Both are spherical. Behavioral DNA fits the neuroscience of the brain (also spherical). In the right hemisphere we imagine purpose and recognize problems—ought and is. In the left we create processes and products, hoping they will work—can and will. The tech world tends to be left-brained. Engineers think about what a technology can do. I’m right-brained. I imagine what technologies can undo—like shrink attention span. The solution is organizational ambidexterity. It’s the most effective infrastructure for a design renaissance.
We now have left-brained engineers collaborating with right-brain leaders. We work in roundtables. Right-brain thinkers come from outside the technology industry. They question Big Things. This model of accountability is creating a design renaissance, one that aligns with an accurate assessment of human nature.”
Now, imagine Tristan Harris closing with: “I’m a spiritual person. Through this lab, I learned that a technology problem is actually a spiritual problem. Ought is purpose. Purpose is telos in Greek. Our problem is technology without telos. It’s why we need a design renaissance. Ought-is-can-will is giving us the infrastructure to bring this about. It is creation-fall-redemption-restoration in an age-old faith tradition. It’s spiritual.”
Charles Murray believes neuroscience will bring about the next faith awakening in America. “The more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated.” Creation-fall-redemption-restoration is an age-old way of understanding human nature. It’s the gospel. Imagine Tristan Harris discovering that.
 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 300.
Originally published on Doggie Head Tilt.