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