Google's Recently Departed Design Ethicist & Magician: "Don't let technology hijack your mind"

Spring boarding off yesterday’s post about how technology inherently possesses the potential danger of creating a “culture of compliance,” we were guided to this Medium entry by Google’s recently departed “Design Ethicist” Tristan Harris.

Harris pretty much backs up everything from the work of Ursula Franklin and Meredith Whittaker (the center of yesterday’s blog entry), and takes it into a whole new dimension. Harris points out example after example of how technology, UX and UI can be designed to “hijack our psychological vulnerabilities,” and how CTOs and other tech talents must be on constant guard to ensure we are creating ethical experiences for users.

Harris literally used to be a magician, and his intriguing central premise is that too much of today’s UX/UI exploits users by similarly “looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it.”

He offers a ten point list of examples, and since we want you to read his entire excellent piece, we won’t recap them all here. But as shorthand, here’s a thumbnail:

  • If you control the menu, you control choice

  • Put a “slot machine” in a million pockets

  • FOMO: Fear of missing out

  • Social Approval and Social Reciprocity

  • Bottomless Bowls, Infinite Feeds and Autoplay

  • Instant Interruptions vs. “Respectful Delivery”

  • Bundling your reasoning with THEIR reasoning

  • Inconvenient choices

  • Forecasting errors and “foot-in-the-door” choices

We’ll just take the first one of these and paraphrase Harris’s point, and hope it drives you to read his piece in its entirety -- Medium suggests it should take about 12 minutes, and it will be a dozen minutes well-spent.

Harris’s first point is about the illusion of choice. If you go to a grocery store and they offer five toothpaste brands, but none are without fluoride, you have no choice but to buy one with fluoride (not meant as a pro/con about fluoride, just making note of the “choice”).

In the same way, if you are out with your friends and check Yelp for what’s going on in your area for socializing, you might see a list of bars and pubs. Now everybody’s checking out what’s on tap, what’s the bar’s rating, cool pictures, etc. But is going out for another night of drinking really what the group wanted to do to begin with?

Maybe it is. Maybe a bar is a good choice. It’s just that Yelp has changed the question and is now offering an illusion of a complete set of choices when it actually isn’t. By focusing on your phone and not what’s around you, the group may miss a park across the street with a band. A pop-up gallery down the street. An impromptu meet up one block over.

It’s a great opening point, and Harris is just getting started.

And so are we. As we’ve stated from Day One, one of our main goals at 7CTOs is to create a community, but not only of technology-based executives. We seek to build a community of ethical and forward-thinking humanist technologists. People who can meld the machine with the heart as much as the machine with the mind.

We’re gratified when we can find people like Tristan Harris, who clearly “get it,” and we’re doubly pleased when we see they have been influential forces inside megalithic companies like Google. More power to you, Tristan -- we’re on your side.

Again: Please read this Medium column. It’s here: