Technology Is Addictive by Design

Speakers at Collision conference say the industry needs to change its ways

6 June 2018

Technology is not a neutral tool. There are thousands of engineers working behind the scenes to make their company’s products persuasive and to keep users coming back.

That’s according to speakers on the “How Tech Has Us Hooked” panel during this year’s Collision conference, which brought together engineers, entrepreneurs, and chief executives of high-tech companies to discuss emerging trends.

Tristan Harris, who left Google and founded the Center for Humane Technology, said people think they control their own thoughts, but that’s not the case. “If your smartphone is the first thing you look at in the morning,” he said, “the thoughts in your head are not the ones you choose, but influenced by what you see on the screen.” The center advocates for tech devices to be less addicting and harmful.

Millennials check their phone about 150 times a day, according to Harris. People are always refreshing their social media accounts to see how many new likes their posts received. It’s a reward system similar to what happens when we pull a slot machine lever. “Even when we’re aware that we’re being manipulated, it doesn’t change the fact that the design is still appealing to us,” Harris said. “It’s based on how our psychology works.”

There’s an entire discipline in persuasive technology aimed at getting users hooked on their devices or apps. Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, called it “an arms race for your attention.” Steyer’s nonprofit advocates for online protections for children and provides digital literacy training to schools and parents. About 60 percent of the parents who responded to a Common Sense survey reported that they believe their kids are addicted to their phone, he said.

Some argue mobile devices are not so different from being hooked on television or video games. But Harris disagrees. There are distinct differences, he said. Now people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphone and check it constantly throughout the day, including at work and at a restaurant.

“We’re fully immersed,” he said. “We have developed an intimate relationship with our phone that is 24/7.”

Never in human history has something been able to constantly project images directly to our eyes, he said, adding that if those images depict our friends having fun without us, it can damage our self-esteem. The AI algorithms behind such apps are designed to prioritize the best pictures posted—which over time can change the physiology of our brain and cause anxiety or depression.


Common Sense Media and the Center for Humane Technology are working to educate the public about the harm technology can cause while also holding the industry and governments accountable. They seek better privacy rules such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect on 25 May.

Harris noted that the issues affect us all. “How confident are you that you’re not going to see more manipulation in the next election?” he asked. As someone who was involved with the Facebook congressional hearings, he added that he doesn’t trust the social networking company to do the right thing.

“The tech industry moves quickly,” Steyer said, “but without taking responsibility for the consequences of their products. And that’s unacceptable.

“The industry broke our democracy [in the United States] on some level.”

It’s time tech companies’ leaders meet to discuss how to fix such issues, he said, adding, “Companies will benefit from making changes. The public is losing trust in them.”

When a company’s damaged reputation keeps it from hiring or retaining top talent, that prompts changes, Tristan noted. The #DeleteUber campaign, for example, caused an exodus of employees and top executives who didn’t want to be associated with the brand—which helped lead to new policies and a new CEO.


One of the first steps to weaning yourself from your gadget is to notice what is hijacking your attention, Harris said. Often, we don’t even realize why we are checking our Instagram account in bed instead of going to sleep.

He advises people to turn off app notifications. “Get rid of all the red dots,” he said. “You don’t need to know the moment a new YouTube video has been uploaded.”

Have only the essential apps on your home screen, he suggested, such as maps and calendar, and move the rest to another screen.

Some people are changing their phone settings so that the app icons are in gray scale instead of color. “A gray scale subtracts their seductiveness,” Harris said. “The colors are activating dopamine responses, like a chimpanzee seeing a banana.”

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