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Tristan Harris: How better tech could protect us from distraction

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How often does technology interrupt us from what we really mean to be doing? At work and at play, we spend a startling amount of time distracted by pings and pop-ups -- instead of helping us spend our time well, it often feels like our tech is stealing it away from us. Design thinker Tristan Harris offers thoughtful new ideas for technology that creates more meaningful interaction. He asks: "What does the future of technology look like when you're designing for the deepest human values?"

- Design thinker, philosopher, entrepreneur
Tristan Harris helps the technology industry more consciously and ethically shape the human spirit and human potential. Full bio

What does it mean to spend our time well?
00:13
I spend a lot of my time
00:20
thinking about how to spend my time.
00:22
Probably too much --
I probably obsess over it.
00:26
My friends think I do.
00:29
But I feel like I kind of have to,
because these days,
00:30
it feels like little bits of my time
kind of slip away from me,
00:35
and when that happens, it feels like
parts of my life are slipping away.
00:39
Specifically,
00:45
it feels like little bits
of my time get slipped away
00:46
to various things like this,
00:49
like technology -- I check things.
00:50
I'll give you an example.
00:53
If this email shows up --
00:55
how many of you have gotten
an email like this, right?
00:57
I've been tagged in a photo.
01:00
When this appears,
01:03
I can't help but click on it right now.
01:05
Right? Because, like,
what if it's a bad photo?
01:08
So I have to click it right now.
01:11
But I'm not just going
to click "See photo,"
01:13
what I'm actually going to do
is spend the next 20 minutes.
01:16
(Laughter)
01:18
But the worst part is that I know
this is what's going to happen,
01:20
and even knowing
that's what's going to happen
01:24
doesn't stop me
from doing it again the next time.
01:27
Or I find myself in a situation like this,
01:31
where I check my email
and I pull down to refresh,
01:36
But the thing is that 60 seconds later,
01:41
I'll pull down to refresh again.
01:44
Why am I doing this?
01:50
This doesn't make any sense.
01:51
But I'll give you a hint
why this is happening.
01:55
What do you think makes
more money in the United States
02:00
than movies, game parks
and baseball combined?
02:05
Slot machines.
02:13
How can slot machines make all this money
02:17
when we play with such small
amounts of money?
02:20
We play with coins.
02:26
How is this possible?
02:27
Well, the thing is ...
02:30
my phone is a slot machine.
02:33
Every time I check my phone,
02:37
I'm playing the slot machine to see,
02:39
what am I going to get?
02:42
What am I going to get?
02:43
Every time I check my email,
02:45
I'm playing the slot machine,
02:46
saying, "What am I going to get?"
02:48
Every time I scroll a news feed,
02:50
I'm playing the slot machine to see,
02:53
what am I going to get next?
02:55
And the thing is that,
02:58
again, knowing exactly
how this works -- and I'm a designer,
02:59
I know exactly how
the psychology of this works,
03:02
I know exactly what's going on --
03:04
but it doesn't leave me with any choice,
03:06
I still just get sucked into it.
03:09
So what are we going to do?
03:12
Because it leaves us
with this all-or-nothing relationship
03:14
with technology, right?
03:18
You're either on,
03:20
and you're connected
and distracted all the time,
03:22
or you're off,
03:24
but then you're wondering,
03:26
am I missing something important?
03:28
In other words, you're either distracted
03:30
or you have fear of missing out.
03:33
Right?
03:36
So we need to restore choice.
03:38
We want to have
a relationship with technology
03:43
that gives us back choice
about how we spend time with it,
03:46
and we're going to need
help from designers,
03:50
because knowing this stuff doesn't help.
03:54
We're going to need design help.
03:57
So what would that look like?
03:59
So let's take an example that we all face:
04:02
chat -- text messaging.
04:05
So let's say there's two people.
04:08
Nancy's on the left
and she's working on a document,
04:09
and John's on the right.
04:12
And John suddenly remembers,
04:14
"I need to ask Nancy
for that document before I forget."
04:16
So when he sends her that message,
04:22
it blows away her attention.
04:23
That's what we're doing all the time,
bulldozing each other's attention,
04:27
left and right.
04:30
And there's serious cost to this,
04:32
because every time
we interrupt each other,
04:34
it takes us about 23 minutes, on average,
04:38
to refocus our attention.
04:42
We actually cycle through
two different projects
04:43
before we come back
to the original thing we were doing.
04:47
This is Gloria Mark's research
combined with Microsoft research,
04:50
that showed this.
04:55
And her research also shows
that it actually trains bad habits.
04:56
The more interruptions we get externally,
05:00
it's conditioning and training us
to interrupt ourselves.
05:03
We actually self-interrupt
every three-and-a-half minutes.
05:08
This is crazy.
05:13
So how do we fix this?
05:14
Because Nancy and John are in this
all-or-nothing relationship.
05:15
Nancy might want to disconnect,
05:18
but then she'd be worried:
05:20
What if I'm missing something important?
05:21
Design can fix this problem.
05:24
Let's say you have
Nancy again on the left,
05:27
John on the right.
05:29
And John remembers,
"I need to send Nancy that document."
05:30
Except this time,
05:33
Nancy can mark that she's focused.
05:34
Let's say she drags a slider and says,
05:36
"I want to be focused for 30 minutes,"
05:38
so -- bam -- she's focused.
05:40
Now when John wants to message her,
05:42
he can get the thought off of his mind --
05:45
because he has a need,
he has this thought,
05:47
and he needs to dump it out
before he forgets.
05:49
Except this time,
05:52
it holds the messages
so that Nancy can still focus,
05:54
but John can get the thought
off of his mind.
05:58
But this only works
if one last thing is true,
06:02
which is that Nancy needs to know
that if something is truly important,
06:06
John can still interrupt.
06:11
But instead of having constant
accidental or mindless interruptions,
06:16
we're now only creating
conscious interruptions,
06:20
So we're doing two things here.
06:24
We're creating a new choice
for both Nancy and John,
06:26
But there's a second, subtle thing
we're doing here, too.
06:30
And it's that we're changing
the question we're answering.
06:34
Instead of the goal of chat being:
06:37
"Let's design it so it's easy
to send a message" --
06:42
that's the goal of chat,
06:45
it should be really easy to send
a message to someone --
06:46
we change the goal to something
deeper and a human value,
06:49
which is: "Let's create the highest
possible quality communication
06:52
in a relationship between two people.
06:57
So we upgraded the goal.
07:00
Now, do designers
actually care about this?
07:03
Do we want to have conversations
about what these deeper human goals are?
07:06
Well, I'll tell you one story.
07:12
A little over a year ago,
07:14
I got to help organize a meeting
07:17
between some of technology's leading
designers and Thich Nhat Hanh.
07:20
Thich Nhat Hanh is an international
spokesperson for mindfulness meditation.
07:26
And it was the most amazing meeting.
07:31
You have to imagine -- picture a room --
07:32
on one side of the room,
you have a bunch of tech geeks;
07:34
on the other side of the room,
07:38
you have a bunch of long brown robes,
shaved heads, Buddhist monks.
07:40
And the questions were about
the deepest human values,
07:46
like what does the future
of technology look like
07:49
when you're designing
for the deepest questions
07:52
and the deepest human values?
07:54
And our conversation centered
on listening more deeply
07:56
to what those values might be.
08:00
He joked in our conversation
08:02
that what if, instead of a spell check,
08:04
you had a compassion check,
08:07
meaning, you might highlight a word
that might be accidentally abrasive --
08:09
perceived as abrasive by someone else.
08:13
So does this kind of conversation
happen in the real world,
08:16
not just in these design meetings?
08:20
Well, the answer is yes,
08:23
and one of my favorites is Couchsurfing.
08:25
If you didn't know,
Couchsurfing is a website
08:28
that matches people
who are looking for a place to stay
08:30
with a free couch, from someone
who's trying to offer it.
08:34
So, great service --
08:38
what would their design goal be?
08:39
What are you designing
for if you work at Couchsurfing?
08:41
Well, you would think
it's to match guests with hosts.
08:44
Right?
08:49
That's a pretty good goal.
08:50
But that would kind of be like
our goal with messaging before,
08:52
where we're just trying
to deliver a message.
08:54
So what's the deeper, human goal?
08:57
Well, they set their goal
09:00
as the need to create lasting,
positive experiences and relationships
09:02
between people who've never met before.
09:07
And the most amazing thing
about this was in 2007,
09:11
they introduced a way to measure this,
09:13
which is incredible.
09:16
I'll tell you how it works.
09:18
For every design goal you have,
09:19
you have to have
a corresponding measurement
09:20
to know how you're doing --
09:23
a way of measuring success.
09:24
So what they do is,
09:26
let's say you take two people who meet up,
09:27
and they take the number of days
those two people spent together,
09:32
and then they estimate how many
hours were in those days --
09:37
how many hours did
those two people spend together?
09:41
And then after they spend
that time together,
09:43
they ask both of them:
09:46
How positive was your experience?
09:47
Did you have a good experience
with this person that you met?
09:49
And they subtract
from those positive hours
09:52
the amount of time
people spent on the website,
09:56
because that's a cost to people's lives.
10:00
Why should we value that as success?
10:03
And what you were left with
10:06
is something they refer to as "net
orchestrated conviviality,"
10:07
or, really, just a net
"Good Times" created.
10:12
The net hours that would have never
existed, had Couchsurfing not existed.
10:15
Can you imagine how inspiring it would be
to come to work every day
10:20
and measure your success
10:24
in the actual net new contribution
of hours in people's lives
10:26
that are positive,
that would have never existed
10:31
if you didn't do what you were
about to do at work today?
10:33
Can you imagine a whole world
that worked this way?
10:37
Can you imagine a social network that --
10:43
let's say you care about cooking,
10:46
and it measured its success
in terms of cooking nights organized
10:47
and the cooking articles
that you were glad you read,
10:51
and subtracted from that the articles
you weren't glad you read
10:53
or the time you spent scrolling
that you didn't like?
10:56
Imagine a professional social network
11:00
that, instead of measuring its success
in terms of connections created
11:03
or messages sent,
11:07
instead measured its success in terms
of the job offers that people got
11:09
that they were excited to get.
11:13
And subtracted the amount of time
people spent on the website.
11:16
Or imagine dating services,
11:20
like maybe Tinder or something,
11:23
where instead of measuring the number
of swipes left and right people did,
11:25
which is how they measure success today,
11:28
instead measured the deep, romantic,
fulfilling connections people created.
11:31
Whatever that was for them, by the way.
11:38
But can you imagine a whole world
that worked this way,
11:43
that was helping you spend your time well?
11:47
Now to do this you also need a new system,
11:51
because you're probably thinking,
11:53
today's Internet economy --
11:54
today's economy in general --
11:56
is measured in time spent.
11:57
The more users you have,
11:59
the more usage you have,
12:01
the more time people spend,
12:02
that's how we measure success.
12:03
But we've solved this problem before.
12:06
We solved it with organic,
12:09
when we said we need
to value things a different way.
12:11
We said this is a different kind of food.
12:14
So we can't compare it
just based on price;
12:19
this is a different category of food.
12:21
We solved it with Leed Certification,
12:23
where we said this
is a different kind of building
12:25
that stood for different values
of environmental sustainability.
12:29
What if we had something
like that for technology?
12:34
What if we had something
whose entire purpose and goal
12:39
was to help create net new positive
contributions to human life?
12:44
And what if we could
value it a different way,
12:50
so it would actually work?
12:54
Imagine you gave this different
premium shelf space on app stores.
12:56
Imagine you had web browsers
that helped route you
13:00
to these kinds of design products.
13:02
Can you imagine how exciting it would be
to live and create that world?
13:07
We can create this world today.
13:13
Company leaders, all you have to do --
13:16
only you can prioritize a new metric,
13:19
which is your metric for net positive
contribution to human life.
13:23
And have an honest
conversation about that.
13:27
Maybe you're not
doing so well to start with,
13:29
but let's start that conversation.
13:31
Designers, you can redefine success;
you can redefine design.
13:35
Arguably, you have more power
than many people in your organization
13:40
to create the choices
that all of us live by.
13:44
Maybe like in medicine,
13:48
where we have a Hippocratic oath
13:49
to recognize the responsibility
and this higher value
13:51
that we have to treat patients.
13:55
What if designers had something like that,
13:57
in terms of this new kind of design?
13:59
And users, for all of us --
14:02
we can demand technology
that works this way.
14:04
Now it may seem hard,
14:09
but McDonald's didn't have salads
until the consumer demand was there.
14:10
Walmart didn't have organic food
until the consumer demand was there.
14:16
We have to demand
this new kind of technology.
14:20
And we can do that.
14:26
And doing that
14:28
would amount to shifting
from a world that's driven and run
14:29
entirely on time spent,
14:33
to world that's driven by time well spent.
14:37
I want to live in this world,
14:43
and I want this conversation to happen.
14:45
Let's start that conversation now.
14:48
Thank you.
14:51
(Applause)
14:52

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About the speaker:

Tristan Harris - Design thinker, philosopher, entrepreneur
Tristan Harris helps the technology industry more consciously and ethically shape the human spirit and human potential.

Why you should listen

Tristan Harris co-founded the movement for Time Well Spent to spark an important conversation to about the kind of future we want from the technology industry. Instead of a "time spent" economy where apps and websites compete for how much time they take from us, it aims to create an ecosystem competing to help us live by our values and spend time well.

Harris was a design ethicist and product philosopher at Google until 2016, where he studied how technology influences a billion users'attention, well-being and behavior. He led design sprints with product teams, including a meeting between Google's lead product designers and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, international spokesperson for Mindfulness.

Previously, Harris was CEO and co-founder of Apture, which Google bought in 2011. Apture enabled millions of users to get instant, on-the-fly explanations without leaving their place, across a publisher network of a billion page views per month.

Harris holds several patents from his previous career at Apple, Wikia, Apture and Google. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Computer Science, focused on Human Computer Interaction, while dabbling in behavioral economics, social psychology, behavior change and habit formation in Professor BJ Fogg's Stanford Persuasive Technology lab. 

More profile about the speaker
Tristan Harris | Speaker | TED.com