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.” ... we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us. ... He studied computer science at Stanford while interning at Apple, then embarked on a master’s degree at Stanford, where he joined the Persuasive Technology Lab. Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill. ... Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together.
Americans are bad at saving. In an annual survey by the Fed, almost half said they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. The savings rate of the bottom 90 percent of American households hovers just above 1 percent. ... There are many theories for why Americans don’t save, from poverty to debt to conspicuous consumption. But the most enticing comes from behavioral economics: It’s easier not to. Inertia is strong, and putting money away requires overcoming what economists call present bias. ... The good news, according to behavioral economists, is that we can just as easily be tricked into overcoming that psychology with “nudges” that reframe incentives. Just post calorie counts next to unhealthy food, and people won’t order cheeseburgers. Or, make 401(k) plans opt-out, and more people will save money for retirement. Suddenly, with one oh-so-simple tweak, making bad decisions becomes the harder option. ... At every step of the way, the study ran into a web of competing incentives and pesky human flaws that hurt its goal of getting poor people to save money. ... The problem goes beyond a sheer lack of funds. The psychology of poverty is hard to overcome with a dainty nudge. ... the study’s preliminary results were muddy. They suggested that the nudge method did get some people to save more: Deposits increased when people got some kind of reminder. But they didn’t show whether one type of nudge worked better than any other (possibly because of teller error), and they provided no evidence that the savings accounts helped people build up money over time.
In 1997, during his final year as a doctoral student, Fogg spoke at a conference in Atlanta on the topic of how computers might be used to influence the behaviour of their users. He noted that “interactive technologies” were no longer just tools for work, but had become part of people’s everyday lives: used to manage finances, study and stay healthy. Yet technologists were still focused on the machines they were making rather than on the humans using those machines. ... Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable. ... The human brain releases pleasurable, habit-forming chemicals in response to social interactions, even to mere simulacra of them, and the hottest triggers are other people: you and your friends or followers are constantly prompting each other to use the service for longer. ... the internet’s potential to inform and enlighten was at loggerheads with the commercial imperative to seize and hold the attention of users by any means possible.