Tristan Harris — Fighting Skynet and Firewalling Attention (#387)

“Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix.” Chuck Palahniuk

Tristan Harris (@tristanharris) was named by Rolling Stone as one of the “25 People Shaping the World.” He was featured in Fortune’s 2018 “40 under 40” list for his work on reforming technology, and the Atlantic has called him the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.

Formerly Design Ethicist at Google, he is a world-renowned expert on how technology steers our decisions. Tristan has spent nearly his entire life studying subtle psychological forces, from early beginnings as a childhood magician, to working with the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, and to his role as CEO of Apture, which was acquired by Google.

Tristan has briefed heads of state, technology company CEOs, and members of the US Congress about the attention economy, and he’s been featured in media worldwide, including 60 Minutes, PBS News Hour, and many more. He is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, which can be found at, and cohost (with Aza Raskin) of Your Undivided Attention podcast, which exposes the hidden designs that have the power to hijack our attention, manipulate our choices, and destabilize our real-world communities.

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#387: Tristan Harris — Fighting Skynet and Firewalling Attention

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Want to hear an episode with someone who understands the importance of peace and quiet? — Listen to my conversation with Susan Cain about her love for minor key music and how she became a public speaking introvert. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#357: Susan Cain — How to Overcome Fear and Embrace Creativity

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Tristan Harris:

Website | The Center for Humane Technology | Your Undivided Attention Podcast | Twitter


  • Tristan explains why attending a retreat on hypnosis, pickpocketing, and magic in Bali turned out to be one of the best life choices he’s ever made. [06:21]
  • What does Tristan find particularly fascinating about magic and pickpocketing? [09:22]
  • Tristan was recently the lead witness in a Senate hearing on persuasive technology. In a free country, who controls the menu of choices we make? [13:58]
  • What tools or mental models does Tristan use to identify the invisible constraints in his own life? [16:43]
  • We share our mutual experiences with The Work of Byron Katie and what we each learned from the process in spite of initial resistance. [19:33]
  • Belief transformation, identity level propaganda, and the difference between Byron Katie’s work in psychological influence and Russia’s influence campaign during the 2016 US election. [28:58]
  • Playing with human cognition and experience through neuro-linguistic programming and what a closer look at the lines you’ve drawn on your internal map of reality might really tell you. [31:16]
  • Waking up from habitual processes, not believing everything we think, and the 21-Day No-Complaint Experiment. [35:10]
  • The soundtrack of our inner lives that plays on repeat and goes unnoticed. [37:45]
  • What The 4-Hour Workweek and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing taught Tristan about language’s ability to manipulate perception. [38:45]
  • What our respective meditation retreats and one of Tristan’s exercises at Burning Man made us realize about our baseless perceptions of people we don’t even know and situations that aren’t usually what they seem. [40:03]
  • How political consultant Frank Luntz has used vocabulary reframing to sway public opinion for various Republican causes. [44:07]
  • What academic linguist George Lakoff has to say about the power of grounding metaphor. [45:58]
  • The importance of gaining literacy for our minds — for ourselves and the sake of civilization. [47:49]
  • Who is BJ Fogg, what part has he played in applying the psychology of persuasion to technology, and what did Tristan learn at his lab about modifying behavior (including his own)? [49:44]
  • How Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and Tristan tried to apply these behavioral principles for good in the lab. [51:42]
  • How another group in this lab figured out not-so-good ways these principles could be used that predicted the Cambridge Analytica playbook. [54:20]
  • A reiteration that BJ Fogg is not the Dr. Evil of Silicon Valley, and what he’s done to further the goal of world peace (and an understanding of what this actually means). [56:25]
  • How can companies be incentivized to do the right thing when it comes to using easily abused persuasive technologies? Is there a way to motivate change in existing business models that prey on captivating human behavior, or will legislation have to do the job that Wall Street will not? [59:01]
  • What does Tristan see as possible Archimedes’ levers or proof points that could cause a shift in these business models? [1:14:53]
  • How energy companies and utilities in the United States were decoupled from their own destructive business models, and an example of how such a decoupling might be applied to attention monopolies. [1:20:38]
  • How can we stop software from, as Marc Andreessen once said, eating the world, and what would be a good use for funds generated by a proposed attention data tax? [1:23:03]
  • The classic externalizing harm model, the balance sheets that suffer in the process, and a yearning for the days when online technology was geared toward empowerment, not overextractive growth. [1:26:14]
  • Why do we keep growing toward self-terminating catastrophe when the alternative is ultimately less costly? [1:31:37]
  • “Big Brother isn’t watching…” But Aldous Huxley and Neil Postman might be. [1:33:36]
  • What does Tristan do to firewall his attention or mitigate some of the damage/distraction that every economic force seems to want to impose on him? What does he do to defend against these invasive technologies? [1:37:53]
  • The grayscale tip. [1:42:08]
  • What should stay and what should go from your home screen when you want it to be more useful and less distracting. [1:43:50]
  • Exorcising phantom vibrations. [1:45:21]
  • Imagine if society could learn to treat human attention as something sacred. [1:47:15]
  • How (and why) I try to disconnect from social media for a few weeks every few months. [1:49:08]
  • How a humane technology design pattern could save our nervous systems from being overtaxed. [1:51:06]
  • Using the zoom feature on Apple products for less distraction. [1:53:36]
  • Books Tristan gifts or recommends often. [1:56:05]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:58:50]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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19 Replies to “Tristan Harris — Fighting Skynet and Firewalling Attention (#387)”

  1. Incredible episode, Tim and Tristan!

    This hit on a lot of areas I’ve been studying and thinking about, especially persuasion, digital minimalism, and global warming.

    TRISTAN — Keep up the work to harness tech to solve humanity’s biggest problems.

    TIM — When are you getting Cal Newport on the show?

  2. Uhm… What’s happening at 01:46:34????

    Are you experimenting with ‘hidden advertisement’?

    I think to clearly hear you say: ‘ONNIT’.

    Or am i just imagining things here?

  3. This comment has nothing to do with this show but it’s where yesterday’s “5-Bullet Friday” took me. After years as a symphony orchestra CEO (who took an entrepreneurial bender – [Moderator: Wikipedia page mention removed.]) I have been studying tabla with Sandeep Das, member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (previously I studied percussion with Vic Firth/New England Conservatory and Buster Bailey/Juilliard). Like Zakir Hussain, Sandeep is an amazing virtuoso and beautiful human being. If you like inspirational stories (and tabla) you may wish to google Sandeep’s EG Conference talk (2010). It’s really quite wonderful. My treat!

  4. This was a heavy one. Surely one of my top 10 favorite episodes. I am witnessing with my own eye the change happening to peoples personalities and behavior around me and the most terrifying and also amazing thing is that EVERYONE gets addicted easily. The complexity of this problem lies in finding an alternative to social media and changing the habits of nearly half the population of earth. Thank you Tim and Tristan for the invaluable information.

  5. Pensando, da genitore a tutta la tecnologia persuasiva sui nostri figli mi viene male. Ma quello che posso dire è che dobbiamo avere fiducia, spetta ad ognuno di noi come singoli controllare e non farci influenzare se non approfittare della tecnologia per migliorarci e ricercare andando sempre più oltre quelli che sono i nostri limiti sociali, morali e di rispetto della terra.

    [Moderator: The commenter also provided a translation, which I am including below.]

    Thinking as a parent to all the persuasive technology about our children hurts me. But what I can say is that we have to trust, it is up to each of us as individuals to control and not to be influenced if not to take advantage of technology to improve ourselves and to seek more and more beyond our social, moral and earthly limits .

  6. This is my favorite podcast you’ve ever done and I’ve listened to every single one. I think this issue is as important as climate change and I’m grateful you’re providing your platform for this message to be broadcasted. Also, you did a great job in the interview. You sat back and let Tristan do his thing knowing he was in the flow and making really good points. You’ve grown so much as an interviewer and I respect you because you’re always getting better and don’t settle for something because it’s successful. In fact, I believe it’s what makes you successful.

  7. Are there companies in NYC working on attention conservation technology? It’s an area I’ve been very interested in and would like to contribute

  8. Hi!

    Amazing as always.

    Any chance you can get Rory Sutherland (book, Alchemy) as a guest?

    I think he would be an incredible interview with you. Connects with ideas in this episode.

    Thank you.

  9. This hit the top 5 best podcasts of all time for me. Tons of food for thought, and some great reading material to catch up on. Please do a second part to this. Your chemistry was fantastic. Tristan, thank you for advocating for the changes most of us don’t even know we need. I’m a software engineer and felt a lot of conviction listening to this. I hope we can all work together to focus on bettering society’s digital health.

    FYI for Android users hoping to turn on the monochromacy colourspace…

    1) Enable developer mode. Go to settings –> About Phone –> Scroll down to the bottom, and tap on “Build Number” 7 times. You’ll see a feedback message telling you developer mode is enabled.

    2) Go back to settings –> System –> Advanced –> Developer Options

    3) Scroll down to the “Simulate Colour Space” option in the Hardware Accelerated Rendering group. Tap on it, and select Monochromacy.

    No battery benefits here, but hopefully no more bananas for the brain monkey!

  10. Tristan / Tim; Amazing episode. Absolutely amazing. I have a 14 yo and a 12yo and so I feel like I’m getting to watch the dark side of the attention economy play out in real time. And although this podcast makes me want to delete my social media apps and smash my phone… I’m wondering if there’s any way we could get the core of this message in a format that’s good for my kids’ age group. I think the way Tristan presents would be really engaging for early teens, and thought about having my daughter listen to this – but at the same time feel like her age group might need the economic externalities dialed down and and other parts dialed up.

    There may be resources like this already out there – but so much of what’s aimed at their age group seems to be about instilling fear (child predators will get you!) rather than a really reasonable, sensible guy explaining what we’re all giving up in exchange for attention.

    Thank you again for the phenomenal episode.

  11. Fantastic. Incredibly important discussion. Makes me more afraid and more hopeful at the same time. It will take a village indeed. Thank you again for broadcasting this and keep up the great work.

  12. This was easily not my favorite podcast.

    I found this to be a collection of garden variety platitudes and left-leaning potshots. Let me offer some counterbalance.

    Election Interference: Leaked documents and video indicate that leadership at Google was trying to influence the last election, and is planning on doing it again. Let alone employees at Google demonetizing and de-platforming those they disagree with. Where are the ethics in that?

    Inequality: Has there ever been more opportunities for anyone in history to improve their situation? Compare what you have today versus what King George had at the height of his monarchy. See that guy who wrote “The Four-Hour Work Week.”

    Capitalism: Has raised more people out of poverty than anyone or anything. Ask anyone who grew up in a Communist or Socialist country for comparison.

    Democracy: We are a Constitutional Republic. Democracies are dangerous as we risk the tyranny of the majority. There is no greater minority than an individual. Ask those protesting in China how they feel today?

    Distracted by social media, or a pixel on the screen? See Jocko Willink regarding discipline and personal responsibility.

    Looking for the room of adults? Few group settings ever evolve past High School politics. Identity politics and tribalism continue to complicate this. See Nick Dipaolo, or Jordan B. Petersen.

  13. Nothing is more annoying than someone not knowing the difference between a democracy and a republic. The US is a republic it was designed to not be a democracy because those tend to fall into tyrannies.

  14. I keep listening to this. I am especially pleased with the discussion over Orwell and Huxley. As usual it is a duality of themes we tend to need to focus on more than the simplicity of a single entity invading our psyches. Be well and thank you.

  15. Some of the tips and tricks for going to your phone less were interesting and helpful, and I have found or worked out most of these over the years. There is only one killer app for this! Your head not wanting to be distracted: the temptation means you have already lost.

    And so with any new app or option to be notified, it has to be hidden, or switched off, so that you go there when you want to (like a favorite coffee shop), not because the owner keeps wrapping on your door every hour or two…

  16. 5G seems like it could be as great a threat as climate change is hyped to be.

    Although that sounds absurd on the surface , we have no idea if bees will be harmed by this tech and they pollinate most of our food so……

    Sacha Stone’s documentary 5G Apocalypse highlights even more disturbing possibilities as the tech rollout continues while people are distracted…..

    Please highlight and explore this issue Tim!

  17. Hey Tim, hope all is well. I am a loyal listener (and reader) for a while now and this is one of the most impactful podcast episodes for me. Not sure if I am adding this comment on the proper place, but I would like to suggest Britany Kaiser for a podcast talk. After your conversation with Tristan, I dug a bit more and found her book and her recent work with blockchains and I think that data privacy and data security is a big topic moving forward…also, thanks a bunch for the Brave browser shoutout, just stared using it along with DuckDuckGo. Best, Ana