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

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 110), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

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: