Harris warns of ‘lonely tech addicts’

Tristan Harris

Tristan Harris


It is not often that disaster is predicted with crystal-clear clarity at Cannes Lions, but Tristan Harris did so this week.

Harris, the co-founder of US-based Centre of Humane Technology, and the ex-design ethicist at Google, is described as the ‘closest thing to a conscience in Silicon Valley’.

And he is here to alert us to a ticking time bomb set to unleash a generation of tech addicts in danger of losing control over their emotional and mental health.

“We’ve created something that we shall regret,” said Harris during an on-stage interview with Scott Hagedorn, CEO of Omnicom Group subsidiary Hearts & Science.

He was referring to the large number of young people addicted to social media and mobile apps. For example, many end up isolating themselves from family and friends they know and from a large element of reality.

“Loneliness has become a health problem; in the US, it is becoming a greater crisis than even the opiates crisis,” said Harris, referring to the epidemic of prescription-drug addiction recently reported in US media.

Young people’s obsession with social media “isolates them in a filter bubble. It traps you into your own set of truth, which is invariably different from everybody else’s.”

Harris explained digital-media users are vulnerable to addiction because there is only so much attention span that any individual has. Yet, people spend five hours daily on mobile apps; 1.4 hours on linear TV; 2 hours on desktop. They also interact with apps 88 times a day.

“We’ve constructed this whole new reality and we need to ask if this is good for people,” Harris continued. “And because there is only so much attention we can retain, technology is intrinsically trying to radicalise us.”

Harriet Palmer