In his essay How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind—from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris explains various ways the internet and your smartphone are infiltrating your brain and soul—not unlike the horrifying and famous chest busting scene in Alien, in that at first everything about your smartphone seems harmless or okay— until it’s 3 AM and you’re laying fetal position in your bed messaging fourteen different strangers on a dating app the same sad message. Or more generally, Harris shows how designers intentionally build their sites and apps in order to manipulate users “attention economy.” Harris also points out that sometimes this is not an intentional manipulation but sometimes just a byproduct of the technology.

Hijack#1: “if you control the menu, you control the choices.” I found this one especially prescient and insidious— because by presenting a menu to a user, it provides an illusion of free choice. The idea is similar to a consumer haunted house in which individuals are allowed to wander to a certain extent but eventually, they are herded toward the same exact destination. In the internet, this is likely a sales door. Harris’ more disturbing point here is that oftentimes technology will entirely subjugate an individual’s larger possible meta menu. For example, when I spend ten minutes disappointedly scrolling through Netflix’s shitty list of movies, I have already assigned my brain an internal selection of “I need to find a movie” rather than “I need to find something to do”—effectively ruling out any possibility of getting my lazy ass to go exercise.  

Hijack #2: “put a slot machine in a billion pockets.” The core ingredient of slot machines? Intermittent variable rewards, in which users actions are only occasionally paired with a result. So every time you pull your phone from your pocket, you’re cranking the lever on the slot machine, waiting to see if you’ve received a new message, a new email, a new post. Harris says the average person checks their phone 150 times a day. These are not 150 conscious choices, but more like 150 moths drawn to 150 slot machines.

Hijack#5: “social reciprocity (tit for tat).” This seems like an extremely tricky one. Not too long ago, people had to go to concentrated lengths in order to contact you. They had to lick a stamp and drop a letter in a box somewhere. Maybe they had to use a rotary dial. Now—people can send you a break up message at a stoplight.  My mom, now that’s figured out how to use text messages, can check in with me whenever she’s mildly bored. And guess what, I can’t ignore my mom. Social reciprocity at its finest. The opposite of this is having a text message conversation with a narcissist. By my non-scientifically proven estimations, it takes ignoring at least 9-12 consecutive text messages before a severe narcissist understands that the conversation was already terminated 2 and a half hours ago.  

Hijack#6: “bottomless bowls, infinite feeds, and autoplay.” So apparently a professor at Cornell by the name of Brian Wansink designed an actual experiment in which he was able to trick people into eating a never-ending bowl of soup, leading them to eat 73% more calories on average. Before I go any further, can we pause for a moment and try to imagine what a sick fuck this Brian Wansink is or what is must be like to be his wife? Or how about this never-ending bowl of soup, was there a mini-trap door with a chef Boyardee tube, can someone please tell me how this was actually accomplished? Maybe, just maybe, can Brian Wansink end world hunger and poverty? I digress. When it comes to the internet, the bottomless bowl is seen in the infinite scrolling page. Why does Twitter’s feed provide a never ending litany of offensive and awful 140 character thought bubbles from complete strangers? Because you’re an idiot, and you keep scrolling.

Throughout Harris’ essay, he points out several areas where a hypothetical Design Ethicist could come in and fix all these problems. My one concern - until reading Tristan Harris’ essay, I had never once in my life heard of a Design Ethicist. Is this an actual real job at places other than Google? I guess previously when I thought of a Design Ethicist I thought of the people who installed wheelchair ramps on buildings. Harris writes, “Imagine if web browsers and smartphones, the gateways through which people make these choices, were truly watching out for people and helped them forecast the consequences of clicks.” I hope so Mr. Harris. And does this mean I won’t need to clear my internet history?

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