Technology’s “Time Well Spent” movement has lost its meaning

Technology’s “Time Well Spent” movement has lost its meaning
Image: NASA Earth Observatory
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Wednesday should have been a big day for Tristan Harris.

The former Google design ethicist launched the Time Well Spent movement in 2013 after his presentation “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention” went viral within his then employer. The slides outlined how small design elements like push notifications and infinite scroll could become massive distractions at scale. Today, Harris leads the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit that researches and advocates for ways in which technology can better align with human values.

And his movement has taken off.

On Wednesday (Aug. 2), Facebook and Instagram announced a suite of tools to monitor how much time a person spends in the apps. This comes on the heels of Apple and Alphabet releasing similar tools in the past two months. Comcast also announced its Phone Cleanse initiative to help users “improve their mobile wellbeing” earlier this summer.

“Time well spent” is having its Kendall Jenner Pepsi moment. What began as a social movement has become a marketing strategy. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s mission for 2018 is “to make sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent,” a clear reference to Harris’ work.

But it’s easy to co-opt “time well spent” as a value once you’ve already captured the attention of 2.2 billion users. When companies like Facebook check the time-well-spent box with a few cosmetic design changes, they get credit for putting a bandaid on the symptom without addressing the disease.

According to Harris, the disease is the company’s business model. As long as Facebook monetizes its service through advertising, it will always be incentivized to maximize the time users spend with the app. The time well spent movement has become a meme.

The next chapter

In front of a crowd on Wednesday at the Decentralized Web Summit, a San Francisco conference on the future of the internet, Harris didn’t acknowledge Facebook’s release. Instead, in an impassioned address that wasn’t on the scheduled agenda, he gave the would-be authors of the web’s next chapter a warning: Turn the camera around.

“We were so excited to build technology to get into space, it actually took us 10 years [after the getting there] for someone to point the telescope back at earth,” Harris told a courtyard full of hopeful technologists at the old San Francisco Mint. “If we decentralize the systems we already have without an honest recognition of the social harms that are being created—mental health, loneliness, addiction, polarization, conspiracy theories … then we’ve decentralized social harms and we can’t even track them.”

Harris’ metaphor feels particularly relevant for the current moment. A decade after the launch of the iPhone (whose default home screen happened to be a picture of earth from space), tech has started to point the telescope back at itself. The fact that corporations have added digital wellness into their vocabulary is not problematic in and of itself, but references to “time well spent” fail to address the greater problem at hand, according to Harris.

It’s advertising that incentivizes platforms to monetize our attention. It’s advertising that incentivizes platforms to reward sensationalist content that drives engagement. It’s advertising that incentivizes platforms to package our data to sell to third parties. Advertising is the root of the problem. Addictive design is just one of the results.

The web’s original architects all seemed to agree.

Http’s OGs

Next to the courtyard where Harris made his plea, four of the most influential figures in internet history—Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, Mitchell Baker, the chairperson of the Mozilla foundation, Whitfield Diffie, the co-creator of Public Key Encryption, and Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive—sat side-by-side on a panel to discuss where web 1.0 went wrong.

The ideology of the web’s early pioneers, according to Baker, was free software and open source. “Money was considered evil,” she said. So when companies came in to commercialize the internet, the original architects were unprepared.

“Advertising is the internet’s original sin,” Kahle told the packed room. “Advertising is winner-take-all, and that’s how we’ve ended up with centralization and monopolies.”

At the conference, attendees presented utopian visions of how the future of the internet could look. Civil, a new media startup, proposed crowd-supported journalism using cryptocurrency micro-payments. Mastodon, a decentralized and encrypted social network, was commonly referenced as an alternative to Twitter. As Facebook and Google continue to monopolize the digital advertising ecosystem—recent estimates say that the two companies control over 70% of digital advertising spending globally—the promise of a decentralized web, free from the shackles of advertiser demands is fun to imagine.

Harris just hopes the pioneers of the new internet turn around to face the potential negative externalities of their products before it’s too late.