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Addicted to your iPhone? The problem may be the software, not you


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The Atlantic has a profile of Tristan Harris, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is doing something very different than others of his ilk: he’s advocating to make software less addictive, not more. Harris, who is a product of Stanford and Apple, founded Time Well Spent, an advocacy group that encourages companies to design software that ensures our “time is well spent, instead of demanding more of it.” Read an excerpt from the profile below, or the full text here.

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.

While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.

Under the auspices of Time Well Spent, Harris is leading a movement to change the fundamentals of software design. 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.”

Image of Tristan Harris via The Atlantic.