I want you to imagine walking into a room, a control room with a bunch of hundred people, hunched over a desk with little dials and that control room will shape the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction but this actually exists, right now, today. Nowadays, most of the company’s work on how to ethically steer people’s thoughts. Because what we don’t talk about is how the handful of people working at a handful of technology companies through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today. Because when you pull out your phone and they design how this works or what’s on the feed, its scheduling little blocks of time in our minds. If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intent to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into.

When we talk about technology, we tend to talk about it as this blue-sky opportunity. It could go any direction. And I want to get serious for a moment and tell you why it’s going in a specific direction. Because it’s not evolving randomly. There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every news site, TED, elections, politicians, games and even meditation apps have to compete for one thing; which is our attention and there’s only so much of it. And the best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works. And there’s a whole bunch of persuasive techniques to get people’s attention.

A simple example is YouTube. YouTube wants to maximize how much time you spend. And what do they do? They auto play the next video. And let’s say that works really well. They’re getting a little bit more of people’s time. Well if you’re Netflix, you look at that and say, well, that’s shrinking my market share, so I’m gonna auto play the next episode. But then if you’re Facebook, you say, that’s shrinking all of my market share, so now I have to auto play all the videos in the newsfeed before waiting for you to click play. So, the internet is not evolving at random. The reason it feels like it’s sucking us in the way it is, is because of this race for attention. We know where this is going. Technology is not neutral. And it becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem of who can go lower to get it. Let me give you an example of Snapchat. If you didn’t know, snapchat is the number one way that teenagers in United States communicate, and there’s like a hundred million of them that use it. And they invented a feature called snap streaks, which shows that number of days in a row that two people have communicated with each other. In other words, what they just did is that they gave two people something they don’t want to lose. Because if you are a teenager and you have 150 days in a row, you don’t want that to go away. And so think of the little blocks of time that schedules in kid’s minds. So its not even like they’re having real conversations. We have a temptation to think about this as, oh, they’re just using snapchat the way that people used to gossip on the telephone. But what this miss is that in the 1970s, when people were gossiping on the telephones there wasn’t a hundred engineers on the other side of the screen who knew exactly how your psychology worked and orchestrated you into a double bind with each other.

Now, if this making you feel a little bit of outrage, notice that the thought just comes over you. Outrage is also a really good way of getting your attention. Because we don’t choose outrage, it happens to us. And if you’re the Facebook newsfeed you actually benefit when there’s outrage. Because outrage doesn’t just schedule a reaction in emotional time, space for you. We want to share that outrage with other people. So we want to hit share and say, “Can you believe the thing that they said?”. And so outrage works really well at getting attention such that if Facebook had a choice between showing you the outrage feed and a calm newsfeed, they would want to show you the outrage feed, not because someone consciously chose that but because that worked better at getting your attention.

I don’t know a more urgent problem than this, because this problem is underneath all other problems. It’s just not taking away our agency to spend our attention and live the lives we want, its changing the way that we gave our conversations, its changing our democracy, and its changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other. And it affects everyone because a billion people have mobiles in their pockets. So how do we fix this? We need to make three radical changes to technology and our society. The first is that we need to acknowledge that we are pursuable. Once you start understanding that your mind can be scheduled into having little thoughts that you didn’t choose, wouldn’t we want to use that understanding and protect against the way that happens? I think we need to see ourselves fundamentally in a new way. It’s almost like a new period of human history, like the Enlightenment, but almost a kind of self-aware Enlightenment that we can be persuaded and there might be something we want to protect.

The second is that we need new models and accountability systems so that as the world gets better and more and more persuasive over time because its only going to get more persuasive that the people on those control rooms are accountable and transparent to what we want. The only form of ethical persuasion that exists is when the goals of the persuader are aligned with the goals of the persuadee. Lastly, we need a design renaissance that tries to orchestrate the exact and most empowering time well spent way for those timelines to happen. And that would involve two things: one would be protecting against the timelines that we don’t want to be experiencing and the second would be empowering us to live out the timeline that we want.

Sometimes the world’s most pressing and important problems are not these hypothetical future things that we could create in the future. Sometimes the most pressing problems are the one that are right underneath our noses; the things that are already directing a billion people’s thoughts. And maybe instead of getting excited about the new augmented reality and virtual reality and these cool things that could happen, which are going to be susceptible for the same race for attention, we could fix the race for attention on the thing that’s already in a billion people’s pockets. It’s almost like instead of running away to colonize new planets, we could fix the one that we’re already on. Solving this problem is critical infrastructure for solving every other problem. At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time. What will be time well spent for ours?

By Yazhini K 18BEC063