In the keynote talk at this week’s Google I/O developer conference, executives announced new system-level features in Android to help people understand and manage their smartphone usage. “Great technology should improve life, not distract from it,” declared a banner headline on a new site from the company, wellbeing.google. The site continues: “We’re creating tools and features that help people better understand their tech usage, focus on what matters most, disconnect when needed, and create healthy habits for the whole family.”
Not long ago, it would have sounded strange to hear a big tech company talk plainly about the need to disconnect. Connecting the world is gospel for companies like Google, which invests many millions of dollars in ensuring as many people have internet access as possible. Since at least the acquisition of YouTube, the question has been how to get people to spend more time with Google, not less.
But the idea that Google should do more to prevent people from being distracted began long before this week. In February 2013, a product manger named Tristan Harris sent around a presentation built with Google Slides to 10 or so friends inside the company. (To see how it was originally formatted, click here.) The presentation, titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” called on Google to help people spend less time glued to screens. “Change like this can only happen top-down, from large institutions that define the standards for millions of people,” Harris wrote. “And we’re in a great position to do something about all this.”
Harris was not the only Google employee who argued for restraint in feature design, and the company’s thinking on the subject continued to evolve after he left in 2016. But his presentation, which runs to 141 slides, galvanized discussions at Google when Harris published it, according to former employees I spoke to.
It came seven years after the YouTube acquisition, and two years into Google’s efforts to build Google+ into a viable Facebook competitor, which had been controversial internally. Harris’ slides were eventually viewed by tens of thousands of employees, and sparked conversations about the company’s responsibilities long afterward. They were often referred to by employees fighting internal battles over features designed to maximize user attention, former employees said. But while it drew both supporters and skeptics, little direct action resulted from it.
The presentation sparked conversations about the company’s responsibilities long after it was published
The full presentation, which has never before been shared in its entirety, is a compelling historical artifact of tech companies’ evolving thinking. Read today, the five-year-old document shows that ideas around distraction and the potential for smartphone overuse had a long gestation period inside Google. For the most part, Harris did not make recommendations about specific features Google should build. Instead, he asked the company to place more consideration into how it built products like smartphone notifications, email, and the web browsers. (The company declined to comment on the presentation.)
Among other things, the slide deck called for Google to reduce the frequency of interruptions, batch notifications into a digest, and insert friction into the process of checking the phone to encourage people to use it less — all elements incorporated into the latest version of Android. Android P lets you turn over a phone to switch it into do not disturb mode, receive a digest of notifications, and set the phone into a “wind down” mode that turns phones to grayscale before bedtime, which can discourage phone use.)
Harris said he was cheered by the moves Google announced Tuesday. “These are the baby steps of the humane technology movement,” Harris said in an interview. “It’s a 10,000-step road to fix all this stuff. But it’s really important to celebrate the fact that Google is really doing it.”
“These are the baby steps of the humane technology movement.”
Harris said that Google’s embrace of digital well-being showed that there is strong consumer demand for such features, and said he hoped employees of other tech companies would feel empowered to push for additional changes.
So why did it take so long? None of the features Google announced this week are particularly complicated technically. But Chris Messina, who worked with Harris at Google, said the presentation arrived at an awkward time for Google. In 2013, top executives were consumed with the threat that Facebook’s walled garden posed to Google, he said. At the time, it wasn’t clear that pushing users to spend less time on Google would be good for the company.
“I think he was not only fighting an uphill battle, but simply wasn’t providing any arrows, so to speak, to help them win against Facebook,” Messina said. “It was like, you want to run this potato sack race backwards with a water buffalo chained to your back?”
Still, Harris would later take the title of “design ethicist” at the company, a position he held until 2016, when he left to found the organization that is now called the Center for Humane Technology. The organization opposes what it calls “the race to monetize our attention,” calling for more humane design standards, policies, and business models.
“You want to run this potato sack race backwards with a water buffalo chained to your back?”
Half a decade later, Google’s investment in Google+ is winding down. And even Facebook, which like Google has been at the center of the debate over time well spent, acknowledged in a blog post last year that in some cases using Facebook could be bad for your mental health. The company’s answer to this question so far has generally been to use Facebook differently, rather than to use it less. It says liking and commenting on your friends’ posts is linked to improvements in mental health.
Google’s moves this week could lead companies like Facebook to follow. “This will put pressure on all these other companies to get on the same path,” said Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee who recently joined the Center for Humane Technology. “Google should be commended for being the first.”
It remains to be seen what companies follow Google in building features designed to let users reclaim their time. (Apple, which put up its own site promoting smartphone controls for your family in March, is perhaps the likeliest candidate.) The basic ideas have been kicking around inside tech companies for years — they just had to wait for the moment to catch up to them.
“Up until now, the tech’s industry attitude has been ‘Have a problem? It’s your responsibility to use it differently,’” Harris said. “Now it’s ‘it’s our responsibility to design technology in a way that cares about people first.’ Whether the issues are fake news, mental health, loneliness, or addiction, this moment marks that a tide is turning.”
Update, 5/21: Added a link to show how the presentation was originally formatted.