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The Time Well Spent movement gets a sequel

Tristan Harris' first big idea for the tech industry, the Time Well Spent movement, was an outsized s
April 23 · Issue #320 · View online
The Interface
Tristan Harris’ first big idea for the tech industry, the Time Well Spent movement, was an outsized success. Today, he unveiled the sequel — a kind of unified theory of how tech platforms are undermining humanity. His idea, which he calls “downgrading,” attempts to explain everything from smartphone addiction to political polarization. Is his diagnosis correct? And, if so, what’s the solution?
First, some relevant context. Six years ago, Harris was a product manager at Google who published a presentation for his fellow employees to read. Observing how often Google services compelled people to check their email and smartphone notifications, Harris called on his fellow employees to build systems that gave people time back. “Change like this can only happen top-down, from large institutions that define the standards for millions of people,” Harris wrote. “And we’re in a great position to do something about all this.”
The presentation spread quickly inside Google. But despite an initial rush of enthusiasm, Harris became convinced that he could be more effective working on these issues outside the company. He gave a TED talk about how tech companies could protect us from distractions, and formed the Center for Humane Technology with some friends to lobby them to do better.
Along the way, Harris began using the phrase “time well spent” to describe his goal. He wasn’t asking us to abandon our phones — only to use them intentionally, and with care.
Harris was not alone in calling for tech companies to build time- and attention-management features. But I believe his coinage of the phrase “time well spent” helped to catalyze, and accelerate, the movement. In three little words, Harris conveyed a big idea, and made it easier for product managers at big companies to discuss in shorthand. Harris and his colleagues pushed the idea forward in interviews and essays, and in private conversations with employees at the companies where they hoped to effect change.
Last January, I wrote that “time well spent” was shaping up to be tech’s next big debate — and six months later, it was effectively over, as Apple, Google, and Facebook had all added features designed to help users measure their time using those companies’ products and to manage their usage.
All of which is to say that Harris took the stage in San Francisco today from a position of strength. The center he co-founded had gathered a couple hundred people, including current and former employees of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and walked us all through his vision of “downgrading.”
Tech companies, he argues, have “downgraded” humanity by promoting shortened attention spans, outrage-fueled dialogue, smartphone addiction, vanity, and a polarized electorate. Harris called for tech companies to enable a new “race to the top,” centered on building tools to help people focus, find common ground, promote healthy childhoods, and bolster our democracy.
Few would disagree with Harris’ aims. Much less clear, though, is how he intends to get there. Even if you accept that all of the societal ills Harris names have a single common cause — and it seems like a reach to me — it will take many different tools to solve them. And what those tools might be, Harris didn’t say.
Instead, he promised three things from his organization in the coming months. One, a guide for product organizations devoted to promote more humane designs. Two, a podcast about these issues, called Your Undivided Attention, coming June 10th. And finally, a full-fledged conference will arrive in 2020. As of today, the Center for Humane Tech is as much a (nonprofit) media company as it is a movement.
Still, Harris speaks with passion about what he sees as a crisis.
“This is a civilizational moment in a way I’m not sure we’re all reckoning with,” Harris said on stage. “It’s a historical moment when a species that is intelligent builds technology that … can simulate a puppet version of its creator, and the puppet can control the master. That’s an unprecedented situation to be in. That could be the end of human agency, when you can perfectly simulate not just the strengths of people but their weaknesses.”
Harris’ earnestness has resulted in mocking in some quarters. Wired’s Nick Thompson, who got a preview of Harris’ speech today, quoted an unnamed tech executive at one of the big platforms saying this:
 “Tristan sees humans as pawns incapable of managing their own lives. He thinks designers are infinitely powerful and can coerce people to do whatever they want. It is a pure farce.” The executive adds, “I like to imagine Tristan reviewing the latest restaurant. ‘They have clearly intentionally added flavor to this dish to make me want to come back and visit this business again. What scoundrels!’”
Meanwhile, one attendee called today “the most offensive event I have ever been to on many many levels,” saying it centered the voices of designers and engineers, and argued that Harris’ approach to reversing “downgrading” borrows all the frameworks that got us to this place.
Still, Harris speaks the Silicon Valley dialect for a reason: his target audience is the people already working at the big platforms, who remain in the best position to make radical change. Perhaps the next generation of entrepreneurs will adopt human-centered design principles and make today’s giants irrelevant. But until they do — and in case they don’t — Harris is keeping the pressure squarely on them. It’s impossible to say whether his approach is likely to work again — but it didn’t seem particularly likely the first time, either.

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And finally ...
Jack Dorsey is famous for wearing beanies on stage. Beloved Twitter character Darth had some fun with that idea in this take on Dorsey’s meeting with the president today.
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