Tristan Harris on product ethics & morality in design

How do you organise a billion people’s life choices? For tech giants like Google, Facebook or Apple that isn’t a flippant question: incremental design choices can have monumental significance when introduced at the scale such companies command. ‘They’re urban planners,’ argues Tristan Harris, ‘designing this invisible city that a billion people live inside, and they don’t know it.’

Called the ‘closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,’ by The Atlantic magazine, Tristan Harris was formerly a Design Ethicist at Google and is now a leader in Time Well Spent, a movement to align technology with our humanity. Time Well Spent aims to heighten consumer awareness about how technology shapes our minds, empower consumers with better ways to use technology and change business incentives and design practices to align with humanity’s best interest. Previously, Tristan was CEO of Apture, which Google acquired in 2011.

Speaking to Seedcamp partner Carlos Espinal, Tristan calls for greater recognition by technology giants and software engineers of their ethical responsibilities. He argues that companies like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, which jostle aggressively for command over people’s attention in a zero-sum game, are in a ‘nuclear arms race’, or ‘race to the bottom of the brainstem’.

Given the perverse incentives such companies face – such as deploying ‘drip-by-drip’, instant notifications to sustain people’s interest – Tristan encourages the creation of coordinating mechanisms, akin to the Geneva Convention, and the adoption of shared norms to clean up what he calls the ‘pollution in the attention economy’.

If the above player doesn’t work for you, you can also listen directly from our Soundcloud page.

Listen to similar episodes like this:

View all podcasts

Subscribe to our newsletter