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Santa Rosa native Tristan Harris takes on Big Tech in Netflix documentary ’The Social Dilemma’

How to Regain Control

The Center for Humane Technology offers a list of recommendations for asserting more choice in your online interactions. Here are some simple ways to “reboot and rewire”:

* Turn off notifications: Go to Settings > Notifications on your phone if you don’t need to be alerted to every new email or Facebook message.

* Remove addictive apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

* Unfollow outrage-driven Twitter accounts and Facebook groups.

* Device-free dinners: First one to check their phone does the dishes.

* Create a shared charging station in your home where everyone can charge devices outside bedrooms overnight.

* Use a separate alarm clock so you don’t get sucked into your phone first thing in the morning.

* Fully disconnect one day per week.

* Support local journalism: Don’t encourage your local newspaper to resort to the social media clickbait game.

* Reduce distractions with helpful tools like Distraction-Free YouTube (on Chrome), uBlock Origin (Chrome, Safari, Firefox), Siempo (Chrome) and InboxWhenReady (Gmail).

“The Social Dilemma” begins quietly, with the film briefly introducing many of the tech insiders whose interviews will propel the narrative. The last person to be named will turn out to be the central figure in this Netflix Originals documentary. His name is Tristan Harris. He has a slight build and a contained delivery, and his trim ginger beard and rolled-up sleeves create the vibe of your favorite high school math teacher.

This understated persona becomes incongruous over the next 90 minutes of the movie, during which Harris systematically applies an intellectual wrecking ball to the internet’s biggest content providers, exposing the manipulative, addictive methods Silicon Valley uses to keep your eyeballs on your screen.

His message seems to be resonating. Netflix hasn’t released its September rankings, and the subscription service carefully guards its viewership numbers, but “The Social Dilemma,” directed by Jeff Orlowsky, is reported to have been its most highly watched film last month. Certainly, it’s the most discussed at family dinner tables.

It is quite a moment for Harris, who spent his adolescent years in Santa Rosa.

“I’ve been working on these issues for seven or eight years,” Harris said in a recent phone interview. “But this film is the first time we’ve been able to clearly articulate the problem to a global audience. I never would have anticipated the global response we’ve gotten.”

Harris was already a prominent and sought-after voice in the field of internet ethics. His sudden celebrity may have been predictable to techies. Still, it’s a bit stunning to those who knew him when he was living in Rincon Valley and performing magic tricks at birthday parties.

Harris grew up in San Francisco, but his mother, Victoria, yearned for a more rustic existence. She loved riding horses and wanted her only child to have more access to that kind of life. So they uprooted to Santa Rosa when Tristan — he pronounces it “TRIST-ahn” — was beginning junior high school.

“That was our move to the country,” he said.

Harris describes an utterly normal childhood of sports, music and homework. He attended Sonoma Country Day School through eighth grade, then Maria Carrillo High School, where he graduated in 2002.

At Sonoma Country Day, he recalled in a profile on the school’s website, “I remember that Headmaster (Philip) Nix would end assemblies with the pledge. The phrase, ‘I promise to use this day to the fullest, realizing it can never come back again,’ is important to me.”

It’s a theme that now drives his approach to technology and personal choice.

No one in Harris’ family circle, he says, was tech-savvy. His mom barely knew how to turn on a computer. But she worked full time assisting people seeking career transitions, leaving Tristan time to explore the unsupervised wonders of the internet.

“I was one of these Macintosh/Apple people as a kid. I was very passionate about that,” Harris said. “I grew up on a Mac LC II. I thought since the age of 11 that I wanted to work for Apple, be on the next Macintosh team and change the world again.”

His first step down that path was a programming class at Santa Rosa Junior College when he was a high school sophomore or junior. The next, shortly thereafter, was messaging Jeff Bodean out of the blue to ask about working at his computer shop, Micromat. It was on Fulton Road then, but has since moved to Windsor.

“When we brought him in to talk about the job, I had him meet with my other two programmers,” Bodean said. “These guys didn’t to want hire him. I think mostly he was just this enthusiastic kid they pictured pulling on their shirttails, constantly asking, ‘How do you do this?’ I overruled them.”

Perhaps saving modern society in the process, Harris’ more ardent followers would say.

Bodean found an energetic, pleasant teenager — “not a mild-mannered nerd,” the shop owner said — who was soon helping to design TechTool Light, a slimmed-down version of Micromat’s signature diagnostic program, TechTool Pro. Bodean also got a glimpse of Harris’ ability to recognize the power of social media platforms when the kid introduced him to a budding site called Twitter.

“He said, ‘Hey, you should check out this thing,’ ” Bodean recalled. “I’m like, ‘This looks stupid. It’s 140 characters or whatever.’ I looked at him like he was nuts. He could see the potential. Me, I’m like, ‘There’s no pictures. I get two sentences? I’ve got MySpace.’ ”

Harris remained very close to his mother until her death several years ago following a long illness.

How to Regain Control

The Center for Humane Technology offers a list of recommendations for asserting more choice in your online interactions. Here are some simple ways to “reboot and rewire”:

* Turn off notifications: Go to Settings > Notifications on your phone if you don’t need to be alerted to every new email or Facebook message.

* Remove addictive apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

* Unfollow outrage-driven Twitter accounts and Facebook groups.

* Device-free dinners: First one to check their phone does the dishes.

* Create a shared charging station in your home where everyone can charge devices outside bedrooms overnight.

* Use a separate alarm clock so you don’t get sucked into your phone first thing in the morning.

* Fully disconnect one day per week.

* Support local journalism: Don’t encourage your local newspaper to resort to the social media clickbait game.

* Reduce distractions with helpful tools like Distraction-Free YouTube (on Chrome), uBlock Origin (Chrome, Safari, Firefox), Siempo (Chrome) and InboxWhenReady (Gmail).

“It was actually during some of the time this work was exploding the most,” Harris said. “Cambridge Analytica (the British company exposed for using data improperly obtained from Facebook to build voter profiles and influence elections) was blowing up. Our need to be out in public was happening at the same time she was dying.”

Harris assumed possession of his mother’s house upon her death, but that, too, had a tragic ending. Days after his interview with The Press Democrat, the house near the Stonegate development in east Santa Rosa burned to the ground in the Glass fire. “We lost basically everything that we own,” Harris told the Big Technology podcast.

After high school, Harris enrolled at Stanford as a computer science major. Soon he was enrolled in a class taught by B.J. Fogg, whose Persuasive Technology Lab has become a wildly influential training ground for some of the most successful figures in Silicon Valley. But Harris’ time at Stanford didn’t last long. He dropped out to launch a startup, Apture, which focused on making web content instantaneously searchable.

Google acquired Apture in 2011 and put Harris to work on the Gmail Inbox app. It was a huge leap for a young programmer. It was also an eye-opener for Harris, who noticed that no one at Google was talking about the addictive nature of its email interface.

In February 2013, Harris created a slide presentation that he titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” and sent it to 15-20 close colleagues at Google. He was nervous about the reaction — as it turned out, with good reason. When he got to work the next morning, most of the laptops in his sector of Google were opened to the presentation. It had hundreds of simultaneous viewers, and the supportive emails began pouring in.

The long-term impact within the company was … virtually nonexistent. The slideshow created some buzz, then everyone went back to figuring out ways to maximize advertising revenue.

Disillusioned, Harris quit to form a nonprofit, Time Well Spent. Its ambitious mission was to get America to log off its all-consuming devices once in a while and live more mindfully.

Harris still tries to live that credo. He has talked in the past about setting aside time to do sleight-of-hand, play the piano or accordion, or practice his tango steps, and his daily planner often includes notations such as “Bike ride” or “Hike” or simply “Breather.” Harris keeps a Post-it on his laptop with the reminder: “Do not open without intention.”

He found a receptive audience for Time Well Spent, and a tech media star was born. It all accelerated in April 2017, when Harris was featured in a “60 Minutes” segment, a popular TED Talk (“How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day”) and Sam Harris’ (no relation) influential tech podcast, “Making Sense.”

In 2018, Time Well Spent morphed into the Center for Humane Technology, which Harris co-founded with mathematician and physicist Aza Raskin.

The center, which is funded completely through donations — including large gifts from the likes of the Omidyar Network, the Ford Foundation and the Knight Foundation — has been at the forefront of a growing movement within the tech industry to sound the alarm on the murky and outsized influence of social media companies.

Harris, Raskin and their colleagues fight this battle on multiple fronts, including frequent op-ed pieces, small-group meetings with startup executives, addresses to heads of state such as French President Emmanuel Macron and a podcast, “Your Undivided Attention,” that delves into the psychology of opinion formation and how tech companies use it to their financial advantage, and your peril.

Harris insists this work has delivered tangible results. He cites the center’s role in spurring congressional hearings, in 2017, on the role of technology in America’s widening political gulf. Those hearings informed the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

“We talked to senators, and their jaw would drop on the floor,” Harris said. “It was, ‘Oh my God, what do we do?’ It was a moment of realizing there were no adults in the room.”

Much of the center’s cultural and political influence is harder to measure. But Harris said they can find strands of evidence. Such as when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, announcing last November that his platform would ban political ads, said, “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.” The center popularized that phrase.

"We will often hear people in the tech industry, high-ranking executives, talk about what we’ve been talking about,“ Harris said. ”It’s like a tracer bullet. Another example, one thing we like to say is, ’These platforms are holding up a mirror to society, but it’s a funhouse mirror.’ I’ve seen seven senators refer to it.“

Harris’ mission has shot into overdrive since Netflix starting streaming “The Social Dilemma” on Sept. 9.

Orlowsky leaned heavily on Harris’ work to explore the central theme, which goes something like this: Big tech corporations like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have become the most profitable companies in the history of the planet by learning to monetize your attention. The idea is not to sell your data. It is to demonstrate an ability to subtly influence your behavior, which appeals to advertisers.

This imperative to hook you has trained the social media giants to present you with ever more extreme suggestions. And this in turn has contributed to horrors such as QAnon, skyrocketing rates of depression and suicide among young girls, persecution of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar — and an upcoming election that promises to be the most bizarre, and potentially violent, in American history.

“This is not about ‘you’re dumb if you’re being manipulated,’ or that you should be ashamed about it,” Harris said. “We’re all caught in this system. The technology forces us to use systems that are contaminated and toxic.”

The message is nothing new for anyone who has spent time around Harris. The only difference is its recent mass absorption.

“We originally thought the film would come out in theaters, and maybe a small group of friends would see it and talk about it over dinner that night. And we’d be fighting for theater space,” Harris said. “We were like, ‘Can this be bigger than the Mr. Rogers documentary?’ ”

Instead, a deadly pandemic kept the world shuttered indoors, hungry for Netflix content and especially for shows that families could watch together. The time was right for “The Social Dilemma,” and it has exploded.

“We were No. 1 in India, No. 1 in Canada,” Harris said. “India! You’re talking about more than a billion people. It was No. 2 in the U.S. for about a week.”

Harris isn’t naive. He knows this public attention might prove illusory.

“We’re really trying to figure out how we harness this energy and not have it fizzle out, like it did with (Al Gore’s climate change documentary) ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ or my original Google presentation,” Harris said. “The world is experiencing a global awakening. The question is what we do with that.”

Harris said “The Social Dilemma” has aired in 190 countries and in 130 languages, adding that he and Raskin are still getting more than 100 requests per day from media and business.

Not that the reaction has been universally positive. Some critics have argued the film vilifies tech companies — represented on screen as three clone-like figures pulling electronic strings in a darkened room — for a range of societal ills, downplaying the role of free will, and fails to present contrasting views. Others note the apparent hypocrisy of presenting the dangers of the attention economy on Netflix, a streaming platform that happily queues up one offering after another to keep you tuned in.

Not surprisingly, Facebook hit back at “The Social Dilemma,” calling it a “conspiracy documentary” and adding, “We know our systems aren't perfect and there are things that we miss. But we are not idly standing by and allowing misinformation or hate speech to spread on Facebook.”

Harris emphasizes that neither he nor the Center for Humane Technology were involved in financing or creating the movie. He is merely the lead interview subject. And he steadfastly emphasizes that he does not see the big tech companies as sources of intentional evil. In his eyes, they somewhat innocently developed methods of persuasion, effective beyond their wildest dreams, that now trap them in the system as much as any of us.

One person who might have reason to resent the movie’s portrayal is Fogg, the Stanford behavior scientist. The filmmakers spotlight the Persuasive Technology Lab, a research lab founded by Fogg, and their view of its influence on the evolution of technology. In the film, Harris describes that evolution as a move from “a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-based technology environment,” speaking generally about the change in technology and not about the Stanford lab specifically.

In a statement following the publication of this story, Fogg said he believes the film provided a misleading view of the Persuasive Technology Lab. "My Stanford classes and my lab projects never focused on creating addiction or manipulating people," he said in an email. In fact, he said he specifically excluded manipulation or coercion in defining “persuasive technology” in the 1990s and has sought to raise awareness about the ethics of this technology.

Fogg lives in Healdsburg. He and Harris are practically neighbors. While declining an interview, Fogg noted that Harris took his 10-week Stanford class in 2006 but never worked in the lab, and that Fogg tried to assist him with both the Apture startup and Harris’ early work in ethical issues by introducing him to people, suggesting ideas and offering feedback. Fogg added that about 10 years ago, Harris visited him in Healdsburg to talk about projects.

“While at my home he played piano and jammed with my musician stepson who was visiting,” Fogg wrote in an email. “It was fun.”

In a statement made after this story was published, Fogg said he agrees with the aims of the film and described Harris as a teammate. He said he testified about the dangers he foresaw with persuasive technology in 2006 in a presentation to the Federal Trade Commission. The “warnings went unheeded, but they parallel the key themes of ʽThe Social Dilemma,’” Fogg said. “I blazed the trail for Tristan and was happy for him to pick up the baton.”

Harris denied any animosity between the two Sonoma County residents.

“I think people have a misconception about what this lab taught,” he said. “It was not a diabolical training ground for evil programmers to ruin children and democracy.”

Harris came of age in tech, and that’s where most of his friends work. And despite his insistence that the industry needs greater governmental oversight, he knows the real change must come from within.

“When people see what’s going on, it’s clear this is not a win-lose situation,” Harris said. “It’s all of us win, or all of us lose.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tristan Harris was a student in a class taught by B.J. Fogg at Stanford University. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated he was enrolled in Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab. This story has been updated to more precisely describe the research lab and to clarify the context of a partial quote by Tristan Harris about the move from “a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-based technology environment.” The quote was used in the film to describe one of its central themes, not the Behavior Design Lab in particular. This story has also been updated to provide a fuller description of Fogg’s views.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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