How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds

How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds

Opening Questions:

1. What’s the best way to capture your attention on the street?

2. What’s the best way to capture your attention online?

3. Are you easily persuaded to buy things?

4. How much time do you spend looking at social media each day?

5. Do you think you are influenced by social media? How?

We are going to watch the first 6 minutes of a Ted talk by Tristan Harris.

Using Ted talks and video are a fantastic way to improve your listening comprehension, practice listening to different English accents, vocabulary building for the real world and improving your pronunciation.

Here’s how to use video effectively.

1. Go through the English language transcript of the video and identify the difficult vocabulary.

  • Look up the new words and understand them in context.

2. Listen to a short 5 minute video (or part of a video) just in English with no subtitles. Try to understand as much as possible.

  • At the end, try to mark your listening comprehension with a %. Did you understand 60%, or 80% or the talk?

3. Listen again to just the first 5 minutes but with English subtitles. Listen and read to the speakers words and focus on the global meaning, their way of speaking and pronunciation.

  • At the end, try to mark your listening comprehension with a %. How much did your listening comprehension improve from the first listening?
  • Try to identify where you had difficulties from the fist listening. Was is the speed, the pronunciation, the accent or the vocabulary?



By following the steps above you will improve your listening comprehension on the 1st listening. The objective is to close the gap between 1st and 2nd listening. 

1. Vocabulary Questions

Before we watch the video, let’s discuss some of the vocabulary. 

Can you name 2 vehicles that you can steer?

What the hell is a design ethicist?

How many is a handful?

What types of topics are on your Twitter feed? (the feed)

What was the last Netflix series that you got sucked into?

If I say that the final season of Game of Thrones sucked, what do I mean?

Can you describe a blue sky opportunity?

If the market is shrinking, what’s happening?

Where’s the best place to get celebrity gossip?

When was the last time you felt outrage and what was it about?

Name one person or one entity that you are accountable to?



double bind is a dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages

Susceptible means to be easily influenced or affected or harmed by something

To tug is to pull hard or suddenly

2. Watch the first 6 minutes of the Ted talk

3. Comprehension Questions

What is the control room?

How many people in the world use social media?

How does Snapchat keep people active and daily on the app?

How do platforms like Facebook (and the media in general) use outrage?

What is the control room only accountable to?

4. Watch the video again with English subtitles from 0:00 to 5:55

You can select the subtitles by clicking on the caption controls on the bottom of the screen below.

Listening comprehension

What was your level of comprehension after the 2nd listening?

Now that you understand most of the vocabulary, what aspects of his English were hard to understand?

  • pronunciation
  • speed
  • accent
  • grammar

5. Using the vocabulary in different contexts

Can you name 2 physical things that you can steer and 2 non-physical things that can be steered?

Choose an object from the list below and create a sentence with “a handful”

  • grapes
  • popcorn
  • people

Twitter feeds (verb) people information through your Twitter feed (noun), but what other example (or thing) can you feed?

What’s the difference between a blue sky opportunity and blue sky thinking?

Name 3 things that you can shrink?

Do you believe there is good gossip and bad gossip?

Can you use outrage as a noun and a verb?

Create an example sentence for 

  • accountable for 
  • accountable to
Can you think of a social situation where you were in a double bind?
Describe something that you are susceptible to?

6. Summerising exercise

Listen again to these sections and try to summerize in your own words the main ideas. 

Starting from Timecode 5:55, can you summarise why Tristan Harris is giving this talk?

Starting from Timecode 6:34, what are the 3 radical changes he suggests?

7. Discussion

How influential are Google in the world?

Do you agree with his 3 radical changes?

Is social media here to stay or could it evolve into something else?

Do you think that technology can save the world?

Video Transcript

Video Transcript

I want you to imagine walking into a room, a control room with a bunch of people, a hundred people, hunched over a desk with little dials, and that 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. 

I know because I used to be in one of those control rooms. I was a design ethicist at Google, where I studied how do you 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, it’s scheduling little blocks of time in our minds. If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend 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 very 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, 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 that I learned in college at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab to get people’s attention. 

Timecode 2:10

A simple example is YouTube. YouTube wants to maximize how much time you spend. And so what do they do? They autoplay 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 going to autoplay the next episode. But then if you’re Facebook, you say, that’s shrinking all of my market share, so now I have to autoplay 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 the United States communicate. So if you’re like me, and you use text messages to communicate, Snapchat is that for teenagers, and there’s, like, a hundred million of them that use it. And they invented a feature called Snapstreaks, which shows the number of days in a row that two people have communicated with each other. In other words, what they just did is they gave two people something they don’t want to lose. Because if you’re 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 that schedules in kids’ minds. This isn’t theoretical: when kids go on vacation, it’s been shown they give their passwords to up to five other friends to keep their Snapstreaks going, even when they can’t do it. And they have, like, 30 of these things, and so they have to get through taking photos of just pictures or walls or ceilings just to get through their day. So it’s 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 we used to gossip on the telephone. It’s probably OK. Well, what this misses is that in the 1970s, when you were just gossiping on the telephone, 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. 

Timecode 4:20

Now, if this is making you feel a little bit of outrage, notice that that thought just comes over you. Outrage is a really good way also of getting your attention, because we don’t choose outrage. It happens to us. And if you’re the Facebook newsfeed, whether you’d want to or not, 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. And the newsfeed control room is not accountable to us. It’s only accountable to maximizing attention. It’s also accountable, because of the business model of advertising, for anybody who can pay the most to actually walk into the control room and say, “That group over there, I want to schedule these thoughts into their minds.” So you can target, you can precisely target a lie directly to the people who are most susceptible. And because this is profitable, it’s only going to get worse. 

Timecode 5:55

So I’m here today because the costs are so obvious. I don’t know a more urgent problem than this, because this problem is underneath all other problems. It’s not just taking away our agency to spend our attention and live the lives that we want, it’s changing the way that we have our conversations, it’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other. And it affects everyone, because a billion people have one of these in their pocket. 

Timecode 6:34

So how do we fix this? We need to make three radical changes to technology and to our society. The first is we need to acknowledge that we are persuadable. Once you start understanding that your mind can be scheduled into having little thoughts or little blocks of time that you didn’t choose, wouldn’t we want to use that understanding and protect against the way that 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 we need new models and accountability systems so that as the world gets better and more and more persuasive over time — because it’s only going to get more persuasive — that the people in 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. And that involves questioning big things, like the business model of advertising. Lastly, we need a design renaissance, because once you have this view of human nature, that you can steer the timelines of a billion people — just imagine, there’s people who have some desire about what they want to do and what they want to be thinking and what they want to be feeling and how they want to be informed, and we’re all just tugged into these other directions. And you have a billion people just tugged into all these different directions. Well, imagine an entire design renaissance that tried 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, the thoughts that we wouldn’t want to be happening, so that when that ding happens, not having the ding that sends us away; and the second would be empowering us to live out the timeline that we want. 

Timecode 8:36

So let me give you a concrete example. Today, let’s say your friend cancels dinner on you, and you are feeling a little bit lonely. And so what do you do in that moment? You open up Facebook. And in that moment, the designers in the control room want to schedule exactly one thing, which is to maximize how much time you spend on the screen. Now, instead, imagine if those designers created a different timeline that was the easiest way, using all of their data, to actually help you get out with the people that you care about? Just think, alleviating all loneliness in society, if that was the timeline that Facebook wanted to make possible for people. Or imagine a different conversation. Let’s say you wanted to post something super controversial on Facebook, which is a really important thing to be able to do, to talk about controversial topics. And right now, when there’s that big comment box, it’s almost asking you, what key do you want to type? In other words, it’s scheduling a little timeline of things you’re going to continue to do on the screen. And imagine instead that there was another button there saying, what would be most time well spent for you? And you click “host a dinner.” And right there underneath the item it said, “Who wants to RSVP for the dinner?” And so you’d still have a conversation about something controversial, but you’d be having it in the most empowering place on your timeline, which would be at home that night with a bunch of a friends over to talk about it. So imagine we’re running, like, a find and replace on all of the timelines that are currently steering us towards more and more screen time persuasively and replacing all of those timelines with what do we want in our lives. 

Timecode 10:15

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of handicapping our attention, imagine if we used all of this data and all of this power and this new view of human nature to give us a superhuman ability to focus and a superhuman ability to put our attention to what we cared about and a superhuman ability to have the conversations that we need to have for democracy. The most complex challenges in the world require not just us to use our attention individually. They require us to use our attention and coordinate it together. Climate change is going to require that a lot of people are being able to coordinate their attention in the most empowering way together. And imagine creating a superhuman ability to do that. 

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 ones 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 to the same race for attention, if we could fix the race for attention on the thing that’s already in a billion people’s pockets. Maybe instead of getting excited about the most exciting new cool fancy education apps, we could fix the way kids’ minds are getting manipulated into sending empty messages back and forth. 

Maybe instead of worrying about hypothetical future runaway artificial intelligences that are maximizing for one goal, we could solve the runaway artificial intelligence that already exists right now, which are these newsfeeds maximizing for one thing. It’s almost like instead of running away to colonize new planets, we could fix the one that we’re already on. 

Timecode 12:25

Solving this problem is critical infrastructure for solving every other problem. There’s nothing in your life or in our collective problems that does not require our ability to put our attention where we care about. At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time. What will be time well spent for ours? 

Thank you. 


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