Have you ever wondered if all those people you see staring intently at their smartphones — nearly everywhere, and at all times — are addicted to them? According to a former Google product manager you are about to hear from, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. … Some programmers call it “brain hacking” and the tech world would probably prefer you didn’t hear about it.

That's the opening monologue Anderson Cooper delivers in his typically comforting tone to open up a recent 60 Minutes segment titled "Brain Hacking." It's about what you're probably thinking: How tech companies are using our own minds against us, developing methods to control activities, thus having to use their expensive products more often.

Tristan Harris, a former Google manager, spilled the beans on his Silicon Valley peers. He equates the smartphones they create to slot machines, as in, each time we pick it up, we just can't wait to see what prizes we achieved.

"This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit,"  Harris tells Anderson Cooper. "What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products."

Snapchat, Harris says, is one of the most popular apps with kids. To keep them on the app, the company developed a thing called "streaks" — or how many days in a row you've messaged friends. What the social platform found, he says, is that people would be so worried about losing their "streaks" that they'd give up passwords to friends to do it for them while they were away with family. 

What, the actual fuck?

"And so you could ask when these features are being designed," says Harris, "are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?"

Psychologist Larry Rosen throws in his two cents as well, saying that tech companies prey on the ability to manipulate the levels of cortisol in our bodies. That particular hormone is released in typical 'fight or flight' situations. It was used in an evolutionary manner to keep humans alert of oncoming tiger attacks or, you know, to quickly pick up a spear if white dudes were coming to pillage your land. Not checking Facebook releases this same hormone and creates a rush of anxiety in users — essentially making it so that we live in an anxious state the entire time our faces aren't glued to a 6 inch screen. 

“A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.” -Ramsay Brown

"It becomes a race to the bottom of the brainstem," Harris adds. 

The whole segment is an interesting dive into the suck that we all know exists but are often too put-off to say anything about. What it doesn't offer is any sage advice on how to knock it off once in a while, which is likely going to become a larger concern as we see compounding effects of social devastation. Right now, all anyone can do is limit themselves to what's only necessary in their life-to-Internet ratio and possibly take a challenge of shutting down for entire weekends at a time. This is just the beginning of a much larger, much more intrusive epidemic.

So what did viewers have to say about Anderson Cooper getting inside one of the most important topics of our time?


[cover photo: DonkeyHotey via flickr]