Tristan Harris and the virtues of self-control, civility and humility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: http://www.tristanharris.com/

Tristan Harris embodies the technomoral virtue of self-control.

His mission to make us aware of the ways in which we use technologies–most notably our mobile phones and social networking services–and the ways in which we become increasingly addicted to these. He explains that these technologies are a by-product of the business models of companies like Facebook and Google–they want to grab people’s attention and sell it to advertisers; and the algorithms they use–these algorithms provide exactly that context that will pull you in and keep your eyes glued to the screen, with your index finger or thumb ready to make the ‘refresh’ swipe every couple of minutes.

Harris graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Computer Science, focused on Human Computer Interaction, behavioral economics, social psychology, behavior change and habit formation in Professor BJ Fogg’s Stanford Persuasive Technology lab. He was CEO of Apture, which Google acquired in 2011, and worked at Google, as Design Ethicist and left at 2016 to found the non-profit initiative, “Time Well Spent“. In 2018 he founded the Center for Humane Technology.

The center advocates “four levers to redefine our future: Inspire Humane Design; Apply Political Pressure; Create a Cultural Awakening; and Engage Employees”. Moreover, they provide practical suggestions to take control of your phone: “Try these simple changes to live more intentionally with your devices right now“.

Harris wants us to cultivate self-control, a virtue which Shannon Vallor defines as an “ability in technomoral contexts to choose, and ideally to desire for their own sakes, those goods and experiences that most contribute to contemporary and future human flourishing” (2016, p. 124). If we cultivate self-control, we can free ourselves from our addiction to technology and use it in ways that support human flourishing. Self-control is not a disposition against technology, but a disposition to use technology consciously and productively.

Harris also champions the technomoral virtues of civility and humility.

Civility, because he warns us that the cultivation of self-control is underneath all our social interactions and the fabric of society. When we are all glued to our screens, meekly following the algorithms’ recommendations, we are unable to have conversations–conversations with others and with our inner ourselves, about ‘the good life’, how we want to organize our societies and live our daily lives. Self-control is thus a key condition for cultivating the virtue of civility–to deliberation and collective action.

Vallor defines civility as “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others” (2016, p. 141)

And humility, because he stresses that technology by itself is not necessarily evil, but that we need to focus on the ends we want to realize–and then use our technologies as means to realize those ends. He warns us not to believe in technology, but to free ourselves from our addiction to technology and to be free to choose technologies in ways that support human flourishing. We need to let go of our blind faith in technology and treat it as a means, not as an end.

Vallor defines humility as a “recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability; … and renunciation of the blind faith that new technologies inevitably lead to human mastery and control of our environment” (2016, p. 126-7).


Possibly, you find that Tristan Harris embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or email me at:  marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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Exemplars of technomoral virtues

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, I am writing a series of short portraits of people who can be viewed as ‘exemplars’ of the technomoral virtues that she discusses (2016, p. 118-155):

  • Honesty: Respecting Truth: Cathy O’Neil, Luciano Floridi
    “an exemplary respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately in technomoral contexts” (p. 122)
  • Self-control: Becoming the Author of Our Desires: Tristan HarrisAimee van Wynsberghe
    an exemplary ability in technomoral contexts to choose, and ideally to desire for their own sakes, those goods and experiences that most contribute to contemporary and future human flourishing” (p. 124).
  • Humility: Knowing What We Do Not Know: Tristan Harris, Cathy O’Neil, Yuval Noah Harari, Kate Crawford
    a recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability; … and renunciation of the blind faith that new technologies inevitably lead to human mastery and control of our environment” (p. 126-7).
  • Justice: Upholding Rightness: Kate Raworth, Jaron Lanier, Cathy O’Neil, Luciano FloridiAimee van Wynsberghe, Edward Snowden, Safiya Umoja Noble, Bill Gates, Kate Crawford
    a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (p. 128).
  • Courage: Intelligent Fear and Hope: Cathy O’Neil, Sherry Turkle, Edward Snowden, Kate Crawford
    “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (p. 131)
  • Empathy: Compassionate Concern for Others: Kate Raworth, Yuval Noah Harari, Sherry Turkle, Bill Gates
    a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (p. 133)
  • Care: Loving Service to Others: Sherry TurkleAimee van Wynsberghe
    a skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial environment” (p. 138)
  • Civility: Making Common Cause: Tristan Harris, Sherry Turkle, Edward Snowden
    a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others” (p. 141).
  • Flexibility: Skillful Adaptation to Change: Jaron Lanier, Luciano Floridi
    a “reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions” (p. 145).
  • Perspective: Holding on to the Moral Whole: Kate Raworth, Jaron Lanier, Yuval Noah Harari, Luciano FloridiSafiya Umoja Noble
    “a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (p. 149)
  • Magnanimity: Moral Leadership and Nobility of Spirit: Edward Snowden, Bill Gates

My goal, with these portraits, is to inspire researchers, engineers, developers and designers to cultivate these virtues, in themselves and in their work.

Portraits written: Tristan Harris; Kate Raworth; Jaron Lanier; Cathy O’Neil; Yuval Noah Harari; Sherry Turkle; Luciano Floridi; Aimee van Wynsberghe; Edward Snowden; Safiya Umoja Noble; Bill Gates; Kate Crawford
Working on: Elon Musk; danah boyd; Marleen Stikker; Mark Coeckelbergh; Mireille Hildebrandt; Jim Stolze and others.

The people who develop technologies need to cultivate (some of) these virtues, in order to deliver technologies that indeed support others (‘users’) to cultivate the very same virtues. If you are working on an algorithm that can impact people’s lives in terms of justice, e.g., in law enforcement, regarding discrimination, fairness and equality, then you will need to cultivate the virtue of justice. Similarly for the other virtues.

One can cultivate virtues in two ways:

  • By carefully watching and learning from ‘exemplars’, people who embody, exemplify or champion specific virtues (= list above), especially by watching or listening–that’s why there are links to presentations, interviews and podcasts;
  • And by trying-out these virtues in one’s own life, and professionally in one’s projects–learning by doing, ‘practice makes perfect’; the aim is to align one’s thoughts, feelings and actions, so that a virtue becomes a virtuous habit.

Here are some suggestions for cultivating these virtues:

  • Reflect on your current work as researcher, engineer, developer, designer; select one project in which you develop a technology, product or service
  • Use your moral imagination to envision this technology’s impact in society and identify which one or two virtues are at stake, e.g., self-control (does the service aim to make people ‘addicted’, a.k.a. ‘engagement’), justice (can the service have unfair or discriminatory effects), civility (does the service enable people to ‘troll’ others or create ‘filter bubbles’), etcetera.
  • Pick one or two exemplars from the list; people that embody, exemplify or champion the virtues that you want to know more about. Read their portraits and, if you have time, watch their TED Talk, read their books, listen to their podcasts, etc.
  • Next time, in your project, you try-out the virtue(s) you are cultivating: speak up and defend self-control of ‘users’; make a case for justice in the data or algorithm you are using; build-in features that facilitate civility in communication; etc.

The cultivation of these virtues is not a nice-to-have add-on. It is imperative that we take our responsibility (noblesse oblige) and act responsibly:

“The challenge we face today is not a moral dilemma; it is rather a moral imperative, long overdue in recognition, to collectively cultivate the technomoral virtues needed to confront [diverse and urgent] emerging technosocial challenges wisely and well.” (Vallor, 2016, p. 244).