The People Who Don't Want You to Sleep
Can't put your phone down? It's not you.
When former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris testified before the U.S. Senate in 2019, he explained why so many of us are perpetually distracted by our phones: “You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.”
Ever since I read that quote in Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus, I’ve repeated it dozens of times to friends and family members.
I remember it late at night, when instead of selecting a book from the teetering stack on my nightstand, I take another roulette-wheel spin on Instagram, watching videos of strangers’ pets and babies. I know it’s not the best use of my time, but I worked hard all day and I’m tired and oh my lord it’s a goat and a duck who are best friends!
I think about it when friends with graduate degrees from Ivy League colleges tell me they barely have the attention span to read books or longform journalism anymore. Or when, instead of writing another paragraph or working through a complex idea, I reach for my phone and play a word game.
“You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.” — former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris
Americans now spend nearly half of each day looking at their devices, yielding massive profits for the tech industry. Tech companies make money each time we view an ad, and each time we provide them with sellable data via our clicks and swipes. And yet, the issue of excessive screentime is nearly always presented as a problem to be managed by the individual, rather than a result of well-resourced corporations deploying sophisticated tools to hack our attention.
For example, Harris told Hari that Facebook engineers could easily design a feature that tells you which of your friends are nearby and free to meet up, but they don’t because that’s not in Meta’s economic interest. “Facebook makes more money for every extra second you are staring at a screen at their site, and they lose money every time you put the screen down,” writes Hari.
Social media companies don’t want you to go out and have fun with your friends—they want you to look at pictures of your friends having fun without you. Tech companies don’t want you to put down your phone and read a book, and they definitely don’t want you to turn off the light and go to sleep. Sleep is bad for the economy.
“Sleep is a big problem,” Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Charles Czeisler told Hari. “If you’re asleep you’re not spending money, so you’re not consuming anything. You’re not producing any products.” Cziesler added that if people went back to getting a healthy amount of sleep “it would be an earthquake for our economic system, because our economic system has become dependent on sleep-depriving people.”
Excessive screentime is nearly always presented as a problem to be managed by the individual, rather than a result of well-resourced corporations deploying sophisticated tools to hack our attention.
The people selling us things know this. When he was CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings said the streaming channel’s main competitor isn’t FX or HBO—it’s sleep. Journalist Rina Raphael, author of The Gospel of Wellness, attended a conference where Hastings extolled the virtues of binge-watching to an enthusiastic crowd, explaining, “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep,” he said. “And we’re winning!”
They’re winning when you don’t immediately close out the streaming app after you’ve finished watching your show, but instead let the next one load. They’re winning when your thumb effortlessly glides through your phone’s never-ending stream of content—the inventor of “infinite scroll” has deep regrets. The purveyors of goods and services have been studying us like lab rats. They know how to keep us pushing the levers that deliver those pellets of validation, stimulation and comfort.
The lab rat never gets to figure out that she’s a lab rat. She never gets to say, I’m being manipulated for someone else’s gain. I’m going to make a different choice.
But we do.
I enjoy watching television and looking at pictures of friends’ kids and pets. I’m not going to stop doing those things. But understanding that I have adversaries helps me make better choices. A question I find useful: Is what I’m doing good for me, or for the economy?
Sleep is bad for the economy.
If my husband and I go for a hike with our dog, Polly, nobody is making any money. If I snap a picture of Polly and post it on Instagram, I have turned this into an economic event. I’m providing Meta with personal data to sell to other companies, and free content to place alongside advertising. If I post the picture, I’ll want to know who liked it—lame, but true. After the hike, when the three of us are sitting in a nearby beer garden—a business I do want making money off me—I’ll be tempted to pick up my phone, and possibly start looking at pictures of dogs and babies. Instead of looking at the dogs and babies all around me.
Knowing all this hasn’t entirely stopped me from posting pictures of my hikes, but I do it a lot less frequently. Accurately identifying the culprit gives my digital-discipline project a different kind of energy—sorry, Mark Zuckerberg, you’re not making money off me today. I don’t always win this battle—in fact, I lose it lot—but I’m at least better prepared for it. And when I do slip up, I forgive myself. I refuse to accept the blame for the problem created by the engineers on the other side of the screen.
I see the irony. I’m posting this on a technology platform owned by rich guys, in a newsletter I hope to make economically sustainable—that is, to monetize. I want you reading my material, and I should want you spending time on the platforms that get you to this page—be it Facebook, email, or another Substack. (When a friend recently told me Substack sends out push notifications to get frequent users to become paid subscribers, I said, “Good!”) When you like, share, comment or subscribe, you enhance my financial prospects. If you go hiking with your dog, I get squat.
The lab rat never gets to figure out that she’s a lab rat.
I used to torture myself about this sort of thing, but now I see that it’s a trick of the powerful to wave their hand at any and every societal ill and say we’re “all” to blame. Yes, it’s terrible that the senator who has taken more money from fossil-fuel companies than any of his colleagues dictates our climate change policy. But are you one to criticize if you took a flight to your cousin’s wedding in Phoenix last month? Yes, you are.
You can criticize tech companies even as you use their services, and if enough people do this maybe we could even make them better. I’m sure most of those one-thousand engineers don’t want to hurt people, and if we had laws requiring their employers to behave more responsibly, they’d probably sleep better, too.
Tell me about your relationship with your devices. Do you think they’re hindering your ability to concentrate, or are they just useful tools that make life easier (or some combination of both)? Do you think you spend too much time on them? Have you ever tried to cut down on your screentime? Did it work?
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