Skip to main content

Tristan Harris has been celebrated as 'the conscience of Silicon Valley.'

Olaf Blecker

Marcel O’Gorman is University Research Chair and director of the Critical Media Lab at the University of Waterloo.

“When electricity allows for the simultaneity of all information for every human being, it is Lucifer’s moment. He is the greatest electrical engineer.” – Marshall McLuhan, 1977

It seems to be the season for acts of contrition. Two weeks ago, Christopher Wylie rocked the internet with his confession of committing illicit psychometric acts, and now Mark Zuckerberg is being asked to testify before U.S. Congress. But don’t expect a confession from Zuck. Those thirsting for Facebook repentance should turn instead to Chamath Palihapitiya, the company’s former vice-president for user growth, who told a crowd at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business to “soul search” about their relationship with social media, a topic that brings him “tremendous guilt.” Better yet, consider the admonition of Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker, who warned that Facebook is “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Story continues below advertisement

“God only knows,” he mused at a 2017 event in Philadelphia, “what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” It seems that Silicon Valley is finally confronting its transgressions, but what, Mr. Parker, does God have to do with it?

I recently published a short piece online about “digital abstinence,” and as I scrolled down the page during my first view of the article, a captivating image wrested my attention. It was a small photograph promoting a related story about the post-Google evangelist, Tristan Harris. I was compelled to stop and contemplate the serene profile of this slender man with ginger hair, his eyes closed in meditation, a faint glow haloing his head. My first thought was of the melancholy and tragic Tristan made famous by Sir Thomas Malory’s chivalric tale. But no, that wasn’t it. I was not looking at the photographic reworking of a pre-Raphaelite painting. I was gazing upon the icon of a holy man.

Mr. Harris is known, like nearly every Silicon Valley celebrity, to practise meditation, which is what he seems to be doing in this photograph. He is also responsible for bringing Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh to Google. But maybe it makes more sense to think of Mr. Harris as a Christian saint rather than as a bodhisattva. If Wired magazine dubbed Marshall McLuhan as its patron saint, someone must step up and canonize Saint Tristan, who has come to save us from digital sin.

For the past few years I have been inviting people to confess their digital sins to me at various events, including Nuit Blanche Toronto, the Carnival of the Future in Phoenix, and a number of workshops and conferences at high schools and universities. I’m not sure what a digital sin is exactly, but I never have to explain it to others.

“I sleep with my iPhone under my pillow.”

“I ignore my kids sometimes because I’m using my device.”

“I take too many selfies.”

Story continues below advertisement

What these good-humoured repenters are expressing is a conscious recognition that their digital habits can sometimes make them feel guilty. The question is: Guilty of what? The woman with the iPhone under her pillow knows that it could disrupt her sleep, and it might expose her to radiation, but she can’t resist. The man who ignores his kids to browse Buzzfeed knows that he is being a neglectful parent, but he scrolls on. The teenager feels sheepish about her vast archive of selfies, but she keeps snapping. These may seem like examples of gluttony, sloth and pride, but there is something else at work here.

I have observed another category of digital sin, which doesn’t involve typical trespasses such as lust, envy, wrath or greed.

“I have a Twitter account, but I don’t use it.”

“I text in full sentences, and people make fun of me.”

“I hate Facebook.”

These are not run-of-the-mill sins that are simply mediated by digital technology, but rather, examples of sins against the digital. These penitents are acutely aware of the socio-technological pressures they are under, and their confessions point to the so-called tyranny of digital culture, especially social-media apps that greedily clamour for their attention. Attention – how you pay it and where you focus it – is at the heart of all these digital sins.

Story continues below advertisement

In 2014, while I was posing as a sin-cleansing Minister of the Digital Tabernacle, a group of media artists working with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) released an interactive documentary called Seven Digital Deadly Sins. Among the confessants in this “reflection on our digital selves,” is the political folk-rocker Billy Bragg, who is cavalier about handing over his attention to the internet. After admitting to his weakness for skateboard stunts gone wrong, Mr. Bragg breezily suggests that every generation has to “find a way of dealing with the blues … and this generation is doing it through social media, through the internet.”

Mr. Bragg’s super chill perspective, which is perfectly in line with the lighthearted tone of the NFB project, might ease the conscience of a gluttonous consumer of web content. But this complacency threatens to put our digital sins completely out of mind. And that, to paraphrase Prof. McLuhan, is Lucifer’s moment. Maybe a more serious examination of conscience is in order.

For Tristan Harris, digital sin is not a product of human behaviour but of software design that capitalizes on our psychological vulnerabilities.

Olaf Blecker

Enter Tristan Harris, who has been celebrated as “the conscience of Silicon Valley” for decrying the satanic machinations of Google. His prevailing tone is earnestness, a sobering voice in the silicon desert, crying out for a solution to what he calls the “digital attention crisis.” For Mr. Harris, digital sin is not a product of human behaviour but of software design that capitalizes on our psychological vulnerabilities.

Trained at Stanford in the morally dubious persuasion tactics that have been twisted out of the teachings of BJ Fogg, Mr. Harris has suggested that the “slot machines in our pockets” are robbing us of valuable cognitive time. He launched the Time Well Spent movement in an attempt to spread the not-so-good word about digital culture.

Rather than portraying social media as a pushy tyrant, Mr. Harris addresses the pull of digital culture, the persuasiveness designed into our devices. And he’s not afraid to expound on the vice of addiction design: “If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.”

Mr. Harris applies the slot-machine analogy to the swiping on Tinder, the pull-to-refresh on Twitter, and other actions that game theorist Ian Bogost might categorize as forms of procedural rhetoric. Mr. Harris actually holds a number of patents for computing techniques that would also fall into the category of attention-pulling procedures.

This is not the first time that a lapsed student of rhetoric has confessed his wicked ways and devoted himself to the pursuit of higher moral ends. Consider Saint Augustine of Hippo, who laid out his Confessions in 13 books between 397 and 400 AD. Among his sinful exploits (some of them so tantalizingly lusty that literary historian Steven Greenblatt suggested he “invented sex”), Augustine confessed to stealing a pear just for the sake of stealing. Or in his own words, “not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself.” For Augustine, sin is an action that pulls at our attention and distracts us from seeking a higher truth.

As a forthright confessant, Augustine admits that earthly things do momentarily “take” his attention, including lizards, flies and “beautiful bodies.” But these distractions do not captivate him entirely. “It is one thing to rise quickly,” he wrote (try not to think of Greenblatt here), and “another not to fall.” This simple observation, rooted in an acceptance of human frailty and pointing toward the need for self-regulation, might prove useful for those seeking salvation from Mr. Harris’s “attention crisis.” In the meantime, they can take refuge in the confessions of contrite Silicon Valley expatriates.

The chorus of mea culpas seems to be growing louder every day. In a recent article for The Guardian, Paul Lewis reports on “the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia,” and each insider makes an earnest confession. Among them of course is Tristan Harris, but the list also includes Justin Rosenstein, who created the “like” button for Facebook, and Loren Brichter, inventor of the “pull-to-refresh” mechanism used by Twitter. These so-called refuseniks all exhibit a palpable sense of guilt for their digital depravity.

Mr. Brichter is perhaps the most contrite of all, confessing, “I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all.”

Saint Augustine of Hippo stole the pear for the sake of experiencing shame.

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stole asparagus in a phallic one-upping of Augustine.

Mr. Harris, Mr. Brichter and others stole attention because it is a commodity that is both valuable and easy to pluck. Now they want to give it back.

But don’t be fooled by the recent trend of fasting among Silicon Valley CEOs. Not all tech insiders are prepared to repent, take refuge in a cave, or at Camp Grounded for that matter, and lead a more ascetic lifestyle.

In a Globe interview with Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Changes Itself, former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie proclaimed “No guilt here!” when asked about his own role in what he calls the “addiction economy.” A more astute and soul-searching answer would have perhaps led to a confession. The BlackBerry did actually lead to compulsive behaviours, and it did so primarily because of the greed of employers who suddenly had 24/7 access to the attention of their staff. To be fair, BlackBerry did not hire captologists from BJ Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab to sharpen the addictive qualities of their forbidden fruit. But nevertheless, without seductive procedural rhetorics baked into its design, the “CrackBerry" would never have existed.

Predictably, Dr. Doidge cites yet another student of rhetoric in the interview with Mr. Balsillie: Canada’s most infamous media theorist and Catholic convert, Marshall McLuhan. Prof. McLuhan’s aphorism about the modern, tech-addled human wearing “its brain outside of its skull,” fits neatly with Dr. Doidge’s own research that splices together digital circuits and neurons. This is a well-trodden path, covered most infamously perhaps by writer Nicholas Carr.

What Dr. Doidge does not mention, unsurprisingly, is Prof. McLuhan’s grapefruit-sized brain tumour, which Douglas Coupland established as a minor character in his autobiography of the perplexing media theorist. I digress, but Mr. Coupland’s focus on how Prof. McLuhan’s tumour may have played a role in his sphinx-like punning and self-contradictions, point garishly to the larger trend of neurocentricity (i.e. blaming the brain for everything) that has shaped the entire discourse on digital media’s ill effects, from Prof. McLuhan, Mr. Carr, Dr. Doidge and Mr. Harris to Rod Dreher, whose monkish book The Benedict Option warns readers that technology is “rewiring our brains and rendering us increasingly helpless against our impulses.”

In spite of what might be called neuroscience fiction, the brain is not a helpless prosthesis strapped to a skull and plugged into Google; it is a nimble and radically variable organ that helps determine the actions of a body. And it can be trained to do things, much like any other part of the body. The road to redemption from digital sin may very well lie in nothing other than an exercise regimen for the brain.

I’m not talking about puzzle apps that purport to delay the onset of dementia, but about conscious choices regarding when, where, and how to pay attention. This is not a cognitive problem – it’s an existential problem. For this reason, I make frequent use of the French expression faire attention, which translates directly as make attention. Attention is not a measurement of currency to be paid out. It is something that you can craft and fashion according to your own will.

Mr. Harris seems to be tuned into this idea, despite his own neurocentric proclamations about the “attention crisis.” In an essay about how to “Reboot your phone with mindfulness,” he provides what might be called spiritual exercises for the iPhone user. These tips include starting the day with an alarm clock that is not built into the phone, setting custom vibrations to prioritize the importance of notifications, or simply turning off notifications, except for those coming from human beings. These aren’t exactly Ignatian contemplation exercises, but they do ask smartphone users to engage in acts of self-reflection, set aside time for meditation and develop rituals of attention-making that cannot be foiled by the constant distractions of social media.

In her own confessions, written some time around 1567, Saint Teresa of Avila stresses the importance of meditative thinking and, above all, the mastery of attention. One of Teresa’s first transgressions was reading her mother’s books of chivalry. “So completely was I mastered by this passion,” she confesses in her autobiography, “that I thought I could never be happy without a new book.” Her predigital sinning landed her in a monastery, where she eventually wrote The Interior Castle, which outlines a number of exercises promoting contemplation and the regulation of attention. I bring Teresa into this congregation of penitents not to make yet another specious comparison between a Christian saint and Mr. Harris, but to point out the conspicuously male, western, monotheistic origins of the confessant figure. While it might be tempting to celebrate Teresa as a female exception to this rule, she was actually persuaded into repentance by her father, and more pressingly, by her male confessors, who insisted that she document her life experiences in writing for the scrutiny of the church. That is not to say that Teresa was a hapless victim – her writings had a powerful influence on these men, and her teachings still resonate today in some corners of the Roman Catholic Church.

If Silicon Valley is going to face its digital sins, it makes perfect sense for these confessions to come from the men who have shaped, dominated and protected the culture that has provoked the invention of such a concept as the attention economy. However, I am less enthusiastic about the prospect of having these men serve as both confessant and confessor, designing apps to promote digital abstinence, giving mindfulness lectures that command heavy speaker’s fees and signing lucrative deals for self-help books inspired by an appropriative philosophy that might be called technê-zen or even more appropriately here, tech-nhat-hanh.

I’ll conclude by returning to Mr. Balsillie who, in spite of his denial of transgression, makes a devilishly wise recommendation: “If you want to figure out the motivations of tech capitalists, look at the outcomes and infer from there.“ It may well be that what Mr. Harris and other high-profile digital sinners are experiencing is not a Sunday morning epiphany, but a post-Saturday-night hangover. Will the fog of remorse dissipate once the next party gets started? Cynicism aside, Mr. Harris and his brotherhood should know that great hordes of people are watching them evangelize for digital moderation. Let’s hope that these highly visible penitents engender more than an incense-fumed trail of exclusive speaking engagements, celebrity book signings and free dinners. In the meantime, say three Hail Marys, take a mindful inhalation and hold that breath until Mark Zuckerberg steps into the confessional.

Saint Tristan, pray for us.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly argued that Professor Fogg was using dubious persuasion tactics, when in fact it is others who are engaging in such tactics based on his research. This version has been corrected.
Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter