The ‘attention economy’ created by Silicon Valley is bankrupting us

Another week, another political crisis. We’ve had yet another few days of outrageous tweets from President Trump all designed, it seems, to monopolize the national conversation.

It’s all so predictably unpredictable — and what Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the nonprofit group Time Well Spent, calls a world dominated by the race for attention. According to Harris, an ex-design ethicist at Google who The Atlantic described as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” we all “live in a city called the attention economy.” That’s what is shaping everything about contemporary life, Harris says, particularly our increasingly surreal politics.

Harris — an acclaimed speaker at the main TED event this year who has also recently appeared on 60 Minutes and the Bill Maher Show — suggests that Trump might be our first “Attention President.”

For Harris, Trump is a symptom of a far larger malady. The real problem with the global, digital community that we all live in, Harris says, is that it’s dominated by three companies: Google, Facebook and Apple.

These platforms “aren’t neutral,” Harris insists. Instead, Harris — a tech design guru who worked at Google for almost three years as their Product Philosopher — believes they are “exploiting” what he calls “our lower-level vulnerabilities.” Many of us no longer know our own minds, he warns. And so our new community, whose medium of exchange Harris dubs the attention economy, is increasingly dominated by technological addiction (particularly our smartphone use).

So what to do? How to make this new community more habitable?

According to Harris, there are two critical strategies for fixing these problems. The first is for all of us to recognize that we are all vulnerable and for us to all “curate our own lives.”

And the second is for the platform companies to recognize that their users have “vulnerable minds” and for them to make a conscious effort to avoid feeding our “lizard brains,” Harris says.

Neither, in themselves, are complete solutions. To fix the problem requires a joint effort both from all of us and from these platform superpowers of Silicon Valley.