Does Tech 4 Better still have a future in the attention economy?

I was delighted to discover Tristan Harris, an ex-Googler and founder of the Center for Human Technology, at the Tech 4 Better conference at Vivatech 2019. Although Tristan’s talk sailed close to alarmism, it was also packed with some truths.

Few people are as aware as Harris of the power that technology has over the human mind, especially in tandem with the big organizations that control it. This is why Tristan became a “design ethicist” at Google: he wanted to create solutions that wouldn’t be used to “hack” and manipulate the human brain but rather, would protect us by helping rather than enslaving us.

Harris’s position is clear: as long as society’s model is based on exploiting the human brain to boost consumption and profit, Tech 4 Better will only be a pipe dream. He points out that it’s a bit like magic: if you know a few tricks, you can take advantage of the weaknesses of the human mind and manipulate it with technology. Today’s economy is driven by the race to attract and exploit attention. The attention economy has overwhelmed our daily lives and its actors are pulling the strings. Unfortunately, they tend to promote content that’s short, impactful and often simplistic or sensational, all at the expense of more substantive and longer content that is less captivating in the very short term. Harris argues that this is why we are now witnessing an exponential explosion in fake news and other conspiracy movements. The web giants are responsible for much of this brain-washing, since they’ve mastered the art of exploiting these biases and, as things stand, are far from acting for the common good.

What does Harris advise? We should all be attentive to our own behavior. However, this does not eliminate the collective need for courageous regulations.

Based on:

Quand la technologie connaît vos faiblesses, c’est elle qui prend le contrôle” by Marie-Catherine Beuth and Cyril Lacarrière (L’Opinion,May 2019) and the experiences of the Business Digest team at Vivatech (May 2019).