Tristan Harris

Today’s Citizens Must Equip Themselves For The Technological Future

Today’s Citizens Must Equip Themselves For The Technological Future

Today, data and algorithms have influence over everything from our democracy, to our homes, to our work. We are in an era of seemingly unlimited technological progress and the speed of innovation requires citizens to be engaged in non-partisan learning and discussion. We don’t have to know everything but we need to know enough to think critically and ask questions about the technologies being developed, as well as be able to hold accountable the individuals and organizations creating them.

Illuminate The Wonder


As I am writing this post I am listening to Pharrell Williams song Freedom, it is so perfect and the lyrics get me every time:

The atoms in the air Organisms in the sea The Sun, and yes, man Are made of the same things

An important role of artists is to illuminate the beauty and wonder of their world. As you are reading this you should know that I believe artists come in a variety of professions, a person does not have to go by the title "artist" there are engineers, physicists, and scientists who are incredibly creative in how they articulate the world which they see. Recently, as I was watching Madam Secretary there was a brilliant conversation which took place between the characters of a poet laureate and a physicist. The conversation begins with the physicist explaining about poetry, "sometimes it can be ever so slightly indulgent, unnecessarily convoluted, redundant, also pretentious, arrogant and not essential to the evolution of mankind.." to which the poet laureate responds "how do you live with such an unimaginative reductionist view of the world, how is life without the residence of beauty even worth the effort?" to which the physicist says:

Let me tell you a little something about beauty Mr. Hobbs, you seem to think I can't appreciate beauty because I study the intricacies of it's components. It was Richard Feynman, physicist/personal hero of mine, who put it best he said he could appreciate the beauty of a flower more than say uh you. He said he could see more than the average man sees, he could imagine it's cells, he could appreciate the flower evolved in order to make its colors more attractive to insects which means that insects see color. Maybe they share our aesthetic sense, recognizing the majesty of the quantum world only adds to the beauty of life, it does not subtract. So to answer your question Mr. Hobbs I don't just live in a beautiful world, I understand it.

One thing which really excited me about the above quote was that I actually knew who Richard Feynman was! A year or so ago I met his work online during a rabbit trail of sorts, I was reading an article about Bill Gates love of books which led to my discovery he also considers Feynman a hero and had worked to have his lectures brought online. Being able to know something so utterly outside of my profession, gave me the ability to appreciate another layer of the story being told by the writer of Madam Secretary and that is just a hint of the happiness one feels when equipped with information/knowledge from outside of your area of expertise.

Unfortunately, it has become quite popular for individuals, professions, and cultures to be siloed which kind of seems crazy considering globalization and the unprecedented access we have to information and ideas. But so many of these algorithms which give us the results of where we should eat, what book to purchase, etc. are driven by business goals:

Just like the food industry manipulates our innate biases for salt, sugar and fat with perfectly engineered combinations, the tech industry bulldozes our innate biases for Social Reciprocity (we’re built to get back to others), Social Approval (we’re built to care what others think of us), Social Comparison (how we’re doing with respect to our peers) and Novelty-seeking (we’re built to seek surprises over the predictable). - Tristan Harris, Tech Companies Design Your Life ... The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs) — the more we assume that our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from.

We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. - Tristan Harris, How Technology Hijacks People's Minds

With the latest election, a mirror was held up to the nation and many individuals realized the siloed lives that they were living, far too many had been in echo chambers. It seems the more life is spent online, the more narrow things become if we are not careful, which I know sounds absolutely crazy as I am writing this. A big part of my job is to be online, because of that I feel that in some ways I am way too plugged in or tied to technology. To balance this a bit, the last couple of weeks, I have been immersing myself in books about Natural History and Science, areas which are typically weak spots for me. These are not books which Google, Amazon, etc. would recommend to me, I have had to intentionally seek them out. Ask yourself when was the last time that you looked offline for inspiration (not to just immediately share online), to meet someone, to learn about something?

We grow less and less patient for reality as it is, especially when it’s boring or uncomfortable. We come to expect more from the world, more rapidly. And because reality can’t live up to our expectations, it reinforces how often we want to turn to our screens. A self-reinforcing feedback loop. ... When you could have sex with the person of your dreams, or fly through jungles in the Amazon rainforest while looking over at your best friend flying next to you, who would want to stick with reality? - Tristan Harris, Tech Companies Design Your Life

We need to learn how to illuminate the wonder of the world right here and now. I feel a key to how we will do this is by venturing outside of our echo chambers and comfort zones, going deeper in our research of areas where in the past we may have only scraped the surface or where we may have become so rigid in our beliefs that we no longer allow for curiosity and questioning.

Since the late Renaissance, on through the Enlightenment and into the Industrial era, we have witnessed this tendency to segregate disciplines. Why do we continue with it? Why should someone who wants to pursue a career as a physicist suddenly stop learning about music and art in their mid-teens and focus only on mathematics and the sciences? Is it not the case that certain poets and novelists have disseminated the wonders of scientific discovery to a broader audience than a scientist alone could reach? - Richard Martin, The Neo-Generalist, Interview with Scenario Magazine

Let's not let our professions or specialization limit us from a broader perspective on the world. Because I think now more than ever is a time for the unveiling of a new generation of renaissance men and women, who are "outstandingly versatile, well-rounded".

Ps: Seattle Art Museum is having a Three-Day Free Day weekend January 20-22, 2017 it would be the perfect time to do a little offline exploring.

Photography By: Palm Maison