One of the tech industry's leading critics says Apple and Google's new 'screen time' features will never work because they ignore the underlying problem

One of the tech industry's leading critics says Apple and Google's new 'screen time' features will never work because they ignore the underlying problem

Louisiana , United States - 2 May 2018; Tristan Harris, Time Well Spent, on the Center Stage during day two of Collision 2018 at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Apple's Screet Time feature and similar efforts don't address the underlying problem of attention manipulation, said Tristan Harris, one of the tech industry's leading critics.

  • Tristan Harris is happy that companies like Apple and Google are starting to focus on their customers' well-being.
  • But efforts such as Apple's Screen Time are a bit misguided, because they don't address the underlying problem of attention manipulation, said Harris, the cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology.
  • Instead of giving consumers tools to monitor how much they use their devices and apps, tech companies ought to be encouraging users to do other things that are more fulfilling, he said.
  • Business Insider named Harris to its list of the 100 people transforming business. See the full list here.

Tristan Harris is encouraged by the big tech companies' recent focus on the well-being of their customers.

Encouraged, but truth be told, not all that impressed.

The problem with efforts such as the Screen Time feature Apple added to the iPhone and similar ones that Google added to Android is that the companies don't seem to understand and aren't really addressing the underlying problem, said Harris, a cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology and one of the tech industry's leading critics.

"I want to applaud the direction, but I think we have to get the diagnosis right," he told Business Insider in a recent interview.


Harris has repeatedly called out tech companies for exploiting what he calls the attention economy. For years, those companies have designed their products to take advantage of their customers' innate human mental proclivities and shortcomings to manipulate them into spending increasing amounts of time with those apps and services, he said. As Harris has detailed, design features such a "refresh to reload" systems and so-called infinite scroll pages play on users' basic instincts, getting them to devote more of their time and attention to particular products and services.

Read this: AN UNLIKELY REVOLUTIONARY: How Tristan Harris went from working at Apple and Google to consulting with heads of state about how to reform Silicon Valley

Giving customers usage data won't "magically" solve the problem

The companies now seem to think they can empower users to counter that manipulation in part by giving them more information on the time they're spending on their devices and apps, Harris said. But that's an "under-informed" approach, he said.

The thinking seems to be that if users just saw the data, "they would magically start to operate differently," Harris said. "And this is clearly not true, unfortunately."

tech addiction



Similarly misguided are the features that allow users to set limits on the time they spend on their devices or apps, he said. Such features don't address the underlying need or basic desire that users seem to have to interact with such products, he said.

"If the person is feeling the kind of anxiety and novelty-seeking craving in their lower nervous system that causes them to reach for their phone the second time this last 60 seconds ... it's not because they just need a seat belt or ... [need] a limit that says, 'don't do that,'" Harris said.

So what might actually counter the attention manipulation schemes?

Designers should encourage users to do things that are fulfilling

In general, designers should focus on having their products encourage people to make time in their lives for the activities that they find "regenerative" and that help them connect with the people around them, Harris said. That's going to take something other than asking them to set simple time limits, he said. The most effective counter to addiction is connection, not sobriety, he said, paraphrasing author Johann Hari.

When you focus on the things that are fulfilling to you, that connect and regenerate you, "you come back from that experience not feeling as twitchy for that next dopamine fix" from our phone or app, Harris said.


Harris also offered a practical design suggestion that companies and developers could incorporate into their products to help counter the attention manipulation. They could introduce into infinite scroll systems, like Facebook's News Feed, a randomized delay. As users scrolled through such systems, the feeds or pages would, at an unpredictable point, just start getting slower to scroll through.

You would "start to feel frustrated with how long it's taking, and you just start to give up," he said. "That would work. It wouldn't stop the whole problem, but it would work better than a reminder that says, 'Hey, it's been exactly ... an hour and 23 minutes.'"

But that's just one idea. Harris is confident companies and designers can and will come up with plenty more to address the problems of the attention economy.

"This is the opening inning of, hopefully, a whole reformation of the way we design these products to be sensitive to human nature," he said.

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