Tristan Harris — Fighting Skynet and Firewalling Attention (#387)

“Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix.” Chuck Palahniuk

Tristan Harris (@tristanharris) was named by Rolling Stone as one of the “25 People Shaping the World.” He was featured in Fortune‘s 2018 “40 under 40” list for his work on reforming technology, and the Atlantic has called him the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.

Formerly Design Ethicist at Google, he is a world-renowned expert on how technology steers our decisions. Tristan has spent nearly his entire life studying subtle psychological forces, from early beginnings as a childhood magician, to working with the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, and to his role as CEO of Apture, which was acquired by Google.

Tristan has briefed heads of state, technology company CEOs, and members of the US Congress about the attention economy, and he’s been featured in media worldwide, including 60 Minutes, PBS News Hour, and many more. He is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, which can be found at, and cohost (with Aza Raskin) of Your Undivided Attention podcast, which exposes the hidden designs that have the power to hijack our attention, manipulate our choices, and destabilize our real world communities.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#387: Tristan Harris — Fighting Skynet and Firewalling Attention


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Want to hear an episode with someone who understands the importance of peace and quiet? — Listen to my conversation with Susan Cain about her love for minor key music and how she became a public speaking introvert. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#357: Susan Cain — How to Overcome Fear and Embrace Creativity


QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Tristan Harris:

Website | The Center for Humane Technology | Your Undivided Attention Podcast | Twitter


  • Tristan explains why attending a retreat on hypnosis, pickpocketing, and magic in Bali turned out to be one of the best life choices he’s ever made. [06:21]
  • What does Tristan find particularly fascinating about magic and pickpocketing? [09:22]
  • Tristan was recently the lead witness in a Senate hearing on persuasive technology. In a free country, who controls the menu of choices we make? [13:58]
  • What tools or mental models does Tristan use to identify the invisible constraints in his own life? [16:43]
  • We share our mutual experiences with The Work of Byron Katie and what we each learned from the process in spite of initial resistance. [19:33]
  • Belief transformation, identity level propaganda, and the difference between Byron Katie’s work in psychological influence and Russia’s influence campaign during the 2016 US election. [28:58]
  • Playing with human cognition and experience through neuro-linguistic programming and what a closer look at the lines you’ve drawn on your internal map of reality might really tell you. [31:16]
  • Waking up from habitual processes, not believing everything we think, and the 21-Day No-Complaint Experiment. [35:10]
  • The soundtrack of our inner lives that plays on repeat and goes unnoticed. [37:45]
  • What The 4-Hour Workweek and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing taught Tristan about language’s ability to manipulate perception. [38:45]
  • What our respective meditation retreats and one of Tristan’s exercises at Burning Man made us realize about our baseless perceptions of people we don’t even know and situations that aren’t usually what they seem. [40:03]
  • How political consultant Frank Luntz has used vocabulary reframing to sway public opinion for various Republican causes. [44:07]
  • What academic linguist George Lakoff has to say about the power of grounding metaphor. [45:58]
  • The importance of gaining literacy for our minds — for ourselves and the sake of civilization. [47:49]
  • Who is BJ Fogg, what part has he played in applying the psychology of persuasion to technology, and what did Tristan learn at his lab about modifying behavior (including his own)? [49:44]
  • How Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and Tristan tried to apply these behavioral principles for good in the lab. [51:42]
  • How another group in this lab figured out not-so-good ways these principles could be used that predicted the Cambridge Analytica playbook. [54:20]
  • A reiteration that BJ Fogg is not the Dr. Evil of Silicon Valley, and what he’s done to further the goal of world peace (and an understanding of what this actually means). [56:25]
  • How can companies be incentivized to do the right thing when it comes to using easily abused persuasive technologies? Is there a way to motivate change in existing business models that prey on captivating human behavior, or will legislation have to do the job that Wall Street will not? [59:01]
  • What does Tristan see as possible Archimedes’ levers or proof points that could cause a shift in these business models? [1:14:53]
  • How energy companies and utilities in the United States were decoupled from their own destructive business models, and an example of how such a decoupling might be applied to attention monopolies. [1:20:38]
  • How can we stop software from, as Marc Andreessen once said, eating the world, and what would be a good use for funds generated by a proposed attention data tax? [1:23:03]
  • The classic externalizing harm model, the balance sheets that suffer in the process, and a yearning for the days when online technology was geared toward empowerment, not overextractive growth. [1:26:14]
  • Why do we keep growing toward self-terminating catastrophe when the alternative is ultimately less costly? [1:31:37]
  • “Big Brother isn’t watching…” But Aldous Huxley and Neil Postman might be. [1:33:36]
  • What does Tristan do to firewall his attention or mitigate some of the damage/distraction that every economic force seems to want to impose on him? What does he do to defend against these invasive technologies? [1:37:53]
  • The grayscale tip. [1:42:08]
  • What should stay and what should go from your home screen when you want it to be more useful and less distracting. [1:43:50]
  • Exorcising phantom vibrations. [1:45:21]
  • Imagine if society could learn to treat human attention as something sacred. [1:47:15]
  • How (and why) I try to disconnect from social media for a few weeks every few months. [1:49:08]
  • How a humane technology design pattern could save our nervous systems from being overtaxed. [1:51:06]
  • Using the zoom feature on Apple products for less distraction. [1:53:36]
  • Books Tristan gifts or recommends often. [1:56:05]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:58:50]