Technology companies are locked in an arms race to seize your attention, and that race is tearing apart our shared social fabric. In this inaugural podcast from the Center for Humane Technology, hosts Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin will expose the hidden designs that have the power to hijack our attention, manipulate our choices and destabilize our real world communities. They’ll explore what it means to become sophisticated about human nature, by interviewing hypnotists, magicians, experts on the dynamics of cults and election hacking and the powers of persuasion. How can we escape this unrelenting race to the bottom of the brain stem? Start by subscribing to our new series, Your Undivided Attention.
Every 40 seconds, our attention breaks. It takes an act of extreme self-awareness to even notice. That’s why Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, Irvine, started measuring the attention spans of office workers with scientific precision. What she has discovered is not simply an explosion of disruptive communications, but a pandemic of stress that has followed workers from their offices to their homes. She shares the latest findings from the “science of interruptions,” and how we can stop forfeiting our attention to the next notification, and the next one, ad nauseam.
In the second part of our interview with Renée DiResta, disinformation expert, Mozilla fellow, and co-author of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation, she explains how social media platforms use your sense of identity and personal relationships to keep you glued to their sites longer, and how those design choices have political consequences. The online tools and tactics of foreign agents can be very precise and deliberate, but they don’t have to be -- Renée has seen how deception and uncertainty are powerful agents of distrust and easy to create. Do we really need the ease of global amplification of information-sharing that social media enables, anyway? We don’t want spam in our email inbox so why do we tolerate it in our social media feed? What would happen if we had to copy and paste and click twice, or three times? Tristan and Aza also brainstorm ways to prevent and control disinformation in the lead-up to elections, and particularly the 2020 U.S. elections.
Today’s online propaganda has evolved in unforeseeable and seemingly absurd ways; by laughing at or spreading a Kermit the Frog meme, you may be unwittingly advancing the Russian agenda. These campaigns affect our elections integrity, public health, and relationships. In this episode, the first of two parts, disinformation expert Renee DiResta talks with Tristan and Aza about how these tactics work, how social media platforms’ algorithms and business models allow foreign agents to game the system, and what these messages reveal to us about ourselves. Renee gained unique insight into this issue when in 2017 Congress asked her to lead a team of investigators analyzing a data set of texts, images and videos from Facebook, Twitter and Google thought to have been created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency. She shares what she learned, and in part two of their conversation, Renee, Tristan and Aza will discuss what steps can be taken to prevent this kind of manipulation in the future.
When we press play on a YouTube video, we set in motion an algorithm that taps all available data to find the next video that keeps us glued to the screen. Because of its advertising-based business model, YouTube’s top priority is not to help us learn to play the accordion, tie a bow tie, heal an injury, or see a new city — it’s to keep us staring at the screen for as long as possible, regardless of the content. This episode’s guest, AI expert Guillaume Chaslot, helped write YouTube’s recommendation engine and explains how those priorities spin up outrage, conspiracy theories and extremism. After leaving YouTube, Guillaume’s mission became shedding light on those hidden patterns on his website, AlgoTransparency.org, which tracks and publicizes YouTube recommendations for controversial content channels. Through his work, he encourages YouTube to take responsibility for the videos it promotes and aims to give viewers more control.
Aza sits down with Yael Eisenstat, a former CIA officer and a former advisor at the White House. When Yael noticed that Americans were having a harder and harder time finding common ground, she shifted her work from counter-extremism abroad to advising technology companies in the U.S. She believed as danger at home increased, her public sector experience could help fill a gap in Silicon Valley’s talent pool and chip away at the ways tech was contributing to polarization and election hacking. But when she joined Facebook in June 2018, things didn’t go as planned. Yael shares the lessons she learned and her perspective on government’s role in regulating tech, and Aza and Tristan raise questions about our relationships with these companies and the balance of power.
In part two of our interview with cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, author of Addiction by Design, we learn what gamblers are really after a lot of the time — it’s not money. And it’s the same thing we’re looking for when we mindlessly open up Facebook or Twitter. How can we design products so that we’re not taking advantage of these universal urges and vulnerabilities but using them to help us? Tristan, Aza and Natasha explore ways we could shift our thinking about making and using technology.
Natasha Dow Schüll, author of Addiction by Design, has spent years studying how slot machines hold gamblers, spellbound, in an endless loop of play. She never imagined the addictive designs which she had first witnessed in Las Vegas, would go bounding into Silicon Valley and reappear on virtually every smartphone screen worldwide. In the first segment of this two-part interview, Natasha Dow Schüll offers a prescient warning to users and designers alike: How far can the attention economy go toward stealing another moment of your time? Farther than you might imagine.