The Binge Breaker

Harris is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co‑founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices.

.. He is rallying product designers to adopt a “Hippocratic oath” for software that, he explains, would check the practice of “exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities” and restore “agency” to users. “There needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards,” he says. “There is a way to design based not on addiction.”

.. . Elman compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.

.. Harris learned that the most-successful sites and apps hook us by tapping into deep-seated human needs. When LinkedIn launched, for instance, it created a hub-and-spoke icon to visually represent the size of each user’s network. That triggered people’s innate craving for social approval and, in turn, got them scrambling to connect.

.. “Even though at the time there was nothing useful you could do with LinkedIn, that simple icon had a powerful effect in tapping into people’s desire not to look like losers,” Fogg told me. Harris began to see that technology is not, as so many engineers claim, a neutral tool; rather, it’s capable of coaxing us to act in certain ways.

.. Though Harris insists he steered clear of persuasive tactics, he grew more familiar with how they were applied. He came to conceive of them as “hijacking techniques”—the digital version of pumping sugar, salt, and fat into junk food in order to induce bingeing.

.. McDonald’s hooks us by appealing to our bodies’ craving for certain flavors; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hook us by delivering what psychologists call “variable rewards.” Messages, photos, and “likes” appear on no set schedule, so we check for them compulsively, never sure when we’ll receive that dopamine-activating prize.

.. Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together. To answer the friend request, we’ll pass by the News Feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through an infinite stream of posts—what Harris calls a “bottomless bowl,” referring to a study that found people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra.

..In the end, he says, companies “stand back watching as a billion people run around like chickens with their heads cut off, responding to each other and feeling indebted to each other.”

.. One such guru is Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, who has lectured or consulted for firms such as LinkedIn and Instagram.

.. he quietly released “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” a 144-page Google Slides presentation. In it, he declared, “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies”—Google, Apple, and Facebook—“had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention … We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.”

.. Although Harris sent the presentation to just 10 of his closest colleagues, it quickly spread to more than 5,000 Google employees, including then-CEO Larry Page, who discussed it with Harris in a meeting a year later.

.. Harris left the company last December to push for change more widely, buoyed by a growing network of supporters that includes the MIT professor Sherry Turkle

.. Harris hopes to mobilize support for what he likens to an organic-food movement, but for software: an alternative built around core values, chief of which is helping us spend our time well, instead of demanding more of it.

.. Even Fogg, who stopped wearing his Apple Watch because its incessant notifications annoyed him, is a fan of Harris’s work: “It’s a brave thing to do and a hard thing to do.”

 .. The hypnosis class Harris went to before meeting me—because he suspects the passive state we enter while scrolling through feeds is similar to being hypnotized—was not time well spent.
.. Harris gives off a preppy-hippie vibe that allows him to move comfortably between Palo Alto boardrooms and device-free retreats.
..other Unplug SF attendees, many of whom belong to a new class of tech elites “waking up” to their industry’s unwelcome side effects. For many entrepreneurs, this epiphany has come with age, children, and the peace of mind of having several million in the bank, says Soren Gordhamer, the creator of Wisdom 2.0, a conference series about maintaining “presence and purpose” in the digital age. “They feel guilty,” Gordhamer says. “They are realizing they built this thing that’s so addictive.”
.. he pruned the first screen of his phone to include only apps, such as Uber and Google Maps, that perform a single function and thus run a low risk of “bottomless bowl–ing.”
.. I’m usually quick to be annoyed by friends reaching for their phones, but next to Harris, I felt like an addict. Wary of being judged, I made a point not to check my iPhone unless he checked his first, but he went so long without peeking that I started getting antsy.
.. Harris is developing a code of conduct—the Hippocratic oath for software designers—and a playbook of best practices that can guide start-ups and corporations toward products that “treat people with respect.” Having companies rethink the metrics by which they measure success would be a start.
.. for example, an inbox that asks how much time we want to dedicate to email, then gently reminds us when we’ve exceeded our quota.
.. Technology should give us the ability to see where our time goes, so we can make informed decisions—imagine your phone alerting you when you’ve unlocked it for the 14th time in an hour
.. Harris has demoed a hypothetical “focus mode” for Gmail that would pause incoming messages until someone has finished concentrating on a task, while allowing interruptions in case of an emergency.
.. Harris hopes to create a Time Well Spent certification—akin to the leed seal or an organic label
.. Harris has experimented with creating software that would capture how many hours someone devotes weekly to each app on her phone, then ask her which ones were worthwhile. The data could be compiled to create a leaderboard that shames apps that addict but fail to satisfy.
.. The biggest obstacle to incorporating ethical design and “agency” is not technical complexity. According to Harris, it’s a “will thing.” And on that front, even his supporters worry that the culture of Silicon Valley may be inherently at odds with anything that undermines engagement or growth.
.. He recognizes that this shift would require reevaluating entrenched business models so success no longer hinges on claiming attention and time.
.. the first generation of Time Well Spent software might be available at a premium price, to make up for lost advertising dollars. “Would you pay $7 a month for a version of Facebook that was built entirely to empower you to live your life?,”
.. Harris fears that Snapchat’s tactics for hooking users make Facebook’s look quaint. Facebook automatically tells a message’s sender when the recipient reads the note—a design choice that, per Fogg’s logic, activates our hardwired sense of social reciprocity and encourages the recipient to respond.
.. Snapchat ups the ante: Unless the default settings are changed, users are informed the instant a friend begins typing a message to them—which effectively makes it a faux pas not to finish a message you start.
.. Harris worries that the app’s Snapstreak feature, which displays how many days in a row two friends have snapped each other and rewards their loyalty with an emoji, seems to have been pulled straight from Fogg’s inventory of persuasive tactics.
.. Research shared with Harris by Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral candidate, shows that Snapstreak is driving some teenagers nuts—to the point that before going on vacation, they give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead.
.. Harris thinks his best shot at improving the status quo is to get users riled up about the ways they’re being manipulated, then create a groundswell of support for technology that respects people’s agency—something akin to the privacy outcry
.. Edelman suggests that the incentive to adapt can originate within the industry, as engineers become reluctant to build products they view as unethical and companies face a brain drain.
..the more working there “becomes uncool,” he says, a view I heard echoed by others in his field. “You can really burn through engineers hard.”
.. There is arguably an element of hypocrisy to the enlightened image that Silicon Valley projects, especially with its recent embrace of “mindfulness.”