The Liberation of Human Attention

"I used to think there were no great political struggles left. How wrong I was. The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time. Its success is the prerequisite for the success of virtually all other struggles." — James Williams

What might be a viable response to the attention crisis?
Technology that’s on your team.

"I used to think there were no great political struggles left. How wrong I was. The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time. Its success is the prerequisite for the success of virtually all other struggles." — James Williams


Attention is the prerequisite for everything else we do in life. The systematic exploitation of human attention undermines the basis of human freedom and dignity.

Persuasive information technologies are conditioning environments for billions of people despite an explicit antagonism to those users’ wellbeing. In its escalating arms race to extract attention, limbic capitalism undermines our mental health, diminishes our agency, and handicaps human development. All at a time when the world faces unprecedented catastrophic risks threatening the very possibility of human civilization in the first place.

If we are to carry the light of human consciousness forward, if we are to regenerate the ecological basis for life on earth, if we are to succeed at any of our struggles — we need to reclaim our attention.

This document shows that there is an opportunity to liberate human attention by reimagining human-computer interaction in the face of persuasive technology, attention scarcity, and the intention-action gap. It outlines the design criteria for humane technology, articulates the essential role of intentionality, and introduces the vision behind Potential:

Persuasive technology that’s on your team.

I: The Problem

By now many of us understand the problems with persuasive technology. An ad-revenue business model makes attention extraction the name of the game. As a result, trillion-dollar companies are armed with weapons-grade mind-control tech aimed at isolated individuals who have no idea what they’re up against. Ubiquitous mental health crises, problematic smartphone use, and societal degradation are predictable consequences.

“What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t: all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take, and all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.” — James Williams

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Technology can be designed to change human behavior. There’s a trillion-dollar industry successfully using it against us.

We live in a new era of psychological manipulation emerging from the intersection of behavioral science, neuroscience, data science, and artificial intelligence.

The attention economy, with its advanced technologies of attention capture and behavior modification, represents one of our times’ truly wicked problems:

  1. The evolution of technology that plays the game of human attention and behavior better than humans do,
  2. propelled by incentives that are diametrically opposed to our best interests,
  3. ultimately denying hundreds of millions of people the mental freedom and dignity of choice that it takes to live well, and undermining our collective capacity for solving the world's hardest problems.

Extractive persuasive technology is one of the most significant shifts in the co-evolution of humanity and technology. The asymmetry of power between these technologies and their users is unprecedented, forcing us to rethink our view of human nature, wisdom, and development.

This chapter gives a brief overview and unique insights into the nature of the problem.

Attention is How we Navigate Life: Attention is the basis and pre-requisite for the full stack of capacities by which we navigate life. It’s not just our moment-to-moment awareness; it is much deeper than that: Our ability to align our behavior with our needs, values, and aspirations over time, to know these values in the first place — and the primordial awareness upon which all other capacities are rooted.

Advertising and Misaligned Incentives: Profit-maximization combined with an advertising-based business model incentivizes relentless attention extraction at all costs. This economic imperative turned the “bicycle for the mind” into a hamster wheel.

Human Vulnerabilities: Our monkey minds and paleolithic biology make us predictably irrational, as well as cognitively, emotionally, and socially vulnerable. As a result, we’re prone to be manipulated into making choices that aren’t in our best interest.

The Game of Human Attention: Can I navigate my life in a way that’s true to my aspirations, values, and best interest? Or will this piece of technology seduce me into whatever is beneficial to its creator? Playing this game against Facebook’s algorithms is like playing chess against the computer that beat Kasparov: The odds aren’t in our favor. And once the best human player is beaten, we’ve lost chess, period.

Asymmetry of Power: You’re playing the game of your own attention against products and algorithms funded with billions of dollars of resources, leveraging years of data and simulated models to predict what will engage you best. This is an opponent at the game of human attention that is way beyond our monkey minds and our limited cognitive capacity, our emotional instability, and our vulnerability to be hijacked.

Mental Health and Coping Strategies in a Stressful World: Many are experiencing anxiety, depression, etc — using these technologies as a way to cope with “internal triggers”, psychological and emotional discomfort. Mental health conditions are in a tight feedback loop with intentionality and compulsion: Proactive behavior can stabilize mental health, compulsive behavior can undermine it, and good mental health can further engender intentionality and vice versa.

Problematic Smartphone Use: According to Deloitte’s 2019 global mobile consumer survey (pre-print, N = 29,098 from 170 countries), 29% of the population would be considered addicted based on the Smartphone Addiction Scale. Among those 18 to 25, it’s 46%. Multiplied by 3.1 billion social media users worldwide, we’re easily looking at a billion people experiencing problematic smartphone use and behavioral addiction.

Hyperabundance of Information and Entertainment leads to Attention Scarcity

“When information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource.” — Herbert Simon

This fundamentally changes human-computer interaction and its implicit Jobs-to-be-Done. It’s no longer about information technology, it’s about attention technology. This prevailing misunderstanding of the purpose and notion of “information media” affords us an extraordinary opportunity: To reimagine human-computer interaction in the context of attention scarcity. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this change.

Dysfunctional Attention leads to Disfigured Lives: There’s a spectrum of how able people are to align their attention and behavior with their intentions. If you’re on the side of that spectrum that struggles, this isn’t merely annoying — it is existentially challenging. It becomes the single most important thing to solve for, because if you can’t solve for this, you can’t solve for anything else.

Human Suffering is Behavioral: It‘s opioids and cheeseburgers that are killing us, binge-watching that takes our sleep, and mindless scrolling that kills our peace of mind.

“The modern devil is cheap dopamine. Self-improvement is the modern god.” — Naval Ravikant

Just Getting Started

Persuasive tech will only become more sophisticated and invasive. With generative language models like GPT3, visual engines like DallE, immersive VR metaverse worlds, and real-time emotive media generation, we will enter into an unprecedented age of addiction and dysfunction, previously unimaginable.

Limbic capitalism will continue to innovate and creep up on us in ever-increasingly intimate ways. That means we’re forced to make a choice; to either submit to the algorithmic exploitation of our limbic system, or to take control of our attention.

In a world where the attention economy is using exponential technology to hijack our minds, extract our attention, and manipulate our behavior, we can't just put our phones on greyscale and hope for the best.

“The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40.” — Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addictiveness

An Inevitable Arms Race to the Bottom of the Brainstem

The game-theoretic reality of the attention economy is that there is an arms race to become increasingly effective at exploiting human attention.

If we don’t find ethical and effective ways of protecting, augmenting, and upgrading human attention, wisdom, and choice-making in the face of this threat, the most aggressively extractive attention technologies will remain the default cybernetic extension of billions of people.

We must bind the predatory power of persuasive technology. We need digital environments and tools that use persuasive design to support our attention in a fiduciary spirit. We need exponential technology that helps us play the game of human attention so that we're better at allocating our attention wisely than the attention economy is at seducing us into foolishness.

Which leads to the following question: If some of the world’s most powerful tech companies are caught in the race to the bottom of the brainstem, what would it take to turn this around?

In other words, what is the inverse function to the attention economy?

Worthwhile Pursuits

The scale, complexity, and urgency of this problem demand effective responses on many different levels, including

  • Public Awareness
  • Cultural Awakening & Employee Activism
  • Regulation & Policies
  • Personal Responsibility

All of these are essential and synergistic responses but not sufficient. At the end of the day, the leading edge of this new paradigm needs to translate into the better design of human-computer interaction in the hands of billions of people.

To advance the struggle to liberate human attention, we must build Humane Technology. Urgently. This leaves us with questions like the following:

  • What is our most hopeful vision for co-evolving with persuasive technology?
  • How could we leverage it in a way that aligns with our best interests?
  • What would it take to ethically mediate billions of people’s attention and behavior?
  • If we’re currently stuck in an escalating race to the bottom of the brainstem, how do we start a race to the top of human potential, brilliance, wisdom, and agency?

Interlude: Urgency and the Cost of Inaction

As a species, we have technology on our hands that can influence billions of people — how they see the world, how they feel, how they spend their time, and who they become.

If we have that capacity, what’s a reasonable way to even relate to that? What’s an ethical and responsible way to relate to this situation?

Especially given that we currently have the worst possible incentive system hooked up with that technology — optimizing for addiction, outrage, polarization, out-engineering human agency — there’s a tremendous imperative and urgency to change the status quo. And so, the question is, what the fuck do we do?

We need to build humane technology that competitively upgrades our attention and push for speed and scale, in spite of the possibility of unintended consequences. The default is already catastrophic.

We can’t afford to leave the conditioning of human attention to Mark Zuckerberg and the Chinese government.

II: The Principles of Humane Technology

What makes technology humane? It helps us be as we, being human, wish we were.

Instead of a race to the bottom of the brainstem, we need a race to the heights of human potential, the depths of human wisdom, and the vastness of human ingenuity. Instead of cheap dopamine, mindless entertainment, and addiction, we need technology that helps us live well, do great work, and develop to the fullness of our capacities.

This chapter describes design criteria for humane technology, the Jobs-to-be-Done of wisely mediating attention, the role of intentionality, and how all of this translates into directions for product design.

Fiduciary Responsibility

Applies to “any relation existing between parties to a transaction wherein one of the parties is in duty bound to act with the utmost good faith for the benefit of the other party”.

In an asymmetric power relationship between two parties, fiduciary law requires the more powerful one to act in the best interest of the less powerful one. Fiduciary law exists between eg. doctors, lawyers, therapists, and their clients. Its purpose is to protect the less powerful party from exploitation. Your doctor, for example, is legally bound to give you advice that serves your health, as opposed to eg. their personal profits.

The asymmetry between social media users and these companies is many orders of magnitude greater. Facebook’s data and its ability to manipulate your daily behavior without your knowledge are way beyond that of your doctor, lawyer, and therapist combined.

As designers and technologists, we have a responsibility to not merely give people what they “want” as measured by what we can reliably seduce them into spending time on — but to act in their best interest. This leads to the following questions:

What’s in our best interest? What’s in the best interest of billions of people? What is the very basis of wisdom and desirability? How do we know?

Regret, Wisdom, and Time Well Spent

“… wisdom is knowing the long-term consequences of your actions.” — Naval Ravikant

Regret is a great heuristic for wise choices. Will I regret this choice tomorrow, next year, on my deathbed? It can also be easily encoded as a design feature in tech. It is individualized and it does not assume or prescribe the users’ values and needs. It merely assumes that people would prefer not to regret their choices.

That makes Time Well Spent such a powerful idea. It tests for wisdom. If we look back on how we spent our days, weeks, and lives — was it Time Well Spent, or do we feel regret? If we live wisely day-by-day, week-by-week, year over year, Time Well Spent leads to a life well lived.

There is a massive opportunity to use the power of persuasive technology to support the kind of wise choices that foster health and wellbeing, growth, and development.

Augmented Intentionality

Making people better at acting on their wisest intentions is the ultimate value proposition of humane technology.

The behavioral patterns that limbic tech is optimizing for are compulsive behavior and addiction. Intentionality is a much-needed antidote: It is high-quality attention as the basis for mindful choices that are informed by deeper values and goals.

Instead of defining ‘goodness’ and nudging users towards choices we deem to be good, augmenting our users' very capacity to consciously make choices that are in their best interest, is enabling them towards wisdom, without prescribing what wisdom entails.

Giving people “what they want” as measured by what most reliably seduces them into engagement is a way of avoiding moral responsibility at best, a cheap excuse for plausible deniability at worst. Optimizing for intentionality means taking responsibility while also respecting, encouraging, and supporting people’s freedom and self-determination.

Being intentional translates into intention-action alignment — directing my attention toward what’s important to me, aligning my behavior with my values and aspirations, and developing into the kind of person I really want to be. Ultimately, this means living an examined life; inspired by questions like; What’s important to me? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to look back on? What kind of world do I want to co-create?

In order for a technical system to optimize for intentionality, there needs to be an awareness of the users’ values, and a feedback loop that reifies your behavior with your reflective judgment.

With persuasive technology that supports deep intentionality, radically better ways of living are within reach. In an age of informational abundance, there is no reason why people should eat food that slowly kills them, tolerate environments that make them sick, and live lives that leave them as a mere shadow of who they could have become.

Mental health, physical fitness, quality of life —all of these things can be massively improved on a global scale. At least for those living in the relative abundance of the western world, most human wellbeing, fitness, and self-improvement are behavioral. It's free to do breathwork, practice meditation, exercise, and read — and yet these practices are profoundly transformational.

There is a significant gap between an “average” lifestyle (what most people eat, consume, and care about) and one inspired by the upper reaches of human potential. Augmented Intentionality can help bridge this gap — and represents a unique opportunity for pushing the human race forward.

III: Potential - Persuasive Tech That’s On Your Team

Following the principles outlined above, we find an opportunity to redefine the relationship between human attention and technology.

The vision for Potential is to build the worlds most compelling persuasive technology for intentionality and behavior change—to help billions of people reclaim their attention and live up to their full potential.

1. Reimagining the Home Screen: Building a Meta-App for Intentionality and Behavior Change

As our phones went from a tool we pick up and put down to a continuous extension of ourselves, a new and hyper-implicit Job-to-be-Done emerged:

Help me allocate my attention towards what’s most important to me, help me align my behavior with my intentions.

That’s what a calendar is for. However, there’s an opportunity to reimagine the core UX of how we use our phones in the context of this existentially important Job to be Done.

The home screen of the future won’t be a home screen, it’ll be a Today screen. As we build technology that augments our intentionality, it naturally makes sense to place our intentions at the center of how we use our phone.

Apps will be streamlined to focus on providing just the right shortcuts and content at just the right time. And as technology gets better at guiding us through transformational behavioral programs, these daily routines become part of our intentions.

Since the most potent opportunities for Augmented Intentionality are to be found in the core UX of an operating system, Potential is a kind of meta-app that upgrades your home screen.

It leverages shortcuts and other integrations to make your intentions 1-tap-easy, and widgets to place them at the center of your home screen.

By focusing on this meta-layer of intentionality and behavior change, we’re uniquely positioned to build a super-app for health, wellbeing, and personal development.

The V1 is a combination of Home Screen, Daily Planner, and Habit Tracker; and it will be increasingly supercharged by persuasive tech like machine learning and NLP going forward.

If we're effective at helping users build good habits, that will increase engagement and retention for other apps. This turns Potential into a user acquisition channel and enables custom integrations.

This year we're building the custom integrations and social layer. Next year we'll build the platform, API, Sign in with Potential, and the proof package to attract a whole ecosystem of other apps to build custom integrations with them.

Building the Next Generation of Digital Wellbeing Tools

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In the space there is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Victor Frankl

In that space, we currently find cat videos and outrage porn. Here are some opportunities to mediate user attention in better ways:

Here are some opportunities to mediate customers' attention in better ways:

  • Attentional Judo: The #1 opportunity for taking over attentional real estate is to redirect your attention away from distractive websites, towards conscious moments and menus of choice both predefined by the user and suggested by recommendation engines to support wellbeing and development
  • Today Screen on Desktop: With a browser extension, there’s an opportunity to turn the New Tab page into a Home/Today Screen based on your schedule and intentions for the day. This also enables the opportunity to redirect you to mindful choices when you mindlessly go to Facebook, etc.
  • Hacking activation energy & retention: We can identify when users are acting mindlessly and redirect their attention (type tw... in your browser and hit enter or open Instagram on your phone), which reduces activation energy and increases retention towards their intended behaviors.

State Management

Often, mindless distraction is a response to internal triggers like psychological discomfort. Simply suggesting alternative choices might not solve this. The Jobs-to-be-Done here seem to include...

  • help me find self-awareness about my state
  • help me realize what I’m feeling and what I might need
  • help me realize options that are available to me in the real world, eg. places and people
  • help me tune into the values and vibes I want to embody
  • help me make relaxing and nourishing choices that I look back on without regret

The question here is really: Can we, at any given moment in time, use all the data we have available to predict and suggest choices that are compelling and nourishing?

A Platform for Behavior Change & Real-Time AI Coaching

Amazon Halo Labs

A consumer-facing tool for intentionality is well positioned to become a Platform for Behavioral Intervention Programs, similar to Amazon Halo Labs.

Eventually, this can turn into real-time life coaching powered by Predictive Analytics, Developmental Lookalike Audiences, and language models like GPT3.

If you can provide the interface through which people intentionally live their lives, embedding coaching into this interface is a natural next step.

Again, positioning ourselves as a meta-app from the very beginning will enable opportunities to become a platform for 3rd-party providers.

Deep Tech to Supercharge It All

We’ll re-purpose the full stack that powers the attention economy for nobler purposes. Eg:

Hyper-personalization: Personalized recommendations based on your aspirations and objectives, automatically translating them into your desired schedules, intentions, emojis, and integrations are suggested with high degrees of accuracy.

Psychometric Modeling: A deep model of your psychometrics, demographic, and behavioral data — so that we can tailor developmental trajectories and behavioral protocols precisely to your needs, capabilities, and desires.

Predictive Analytics: Based on your sleep, biomarkers, movement, cognitive activation, posture, time of day, weather, and social interactions — what’s the most nourishing, wise, meaningful, developmentally effective set of choices that we can suggest for you?

NLP-based Coaching: A modern Socrates. Use emerging NLP and language models to help people clarify and refine their values and needs.

Further Notes

  • Meta-Subscription: If we can turn Potential into a super-app, we’ll be able to offer a meta-subscription (like eg. Setapp) that gives you access to Potential and many of our partner apps for eg. 29$ / month.
  • Building Good Habits is Good for Business: Products for intentionality and behavior change turn into keystone habits. That’s a great basis for subscription businesses.
  • Existential Value Proposition: For those struggling with poor self-control and instant gratification, those are existential problems. To them, the difference between attention utterly exploited and attention well-managed is worth much more than 10$ a month.
  • Aligned Incentives: The value proposition of Augmented Intentionality in combination with a subscription business model in the context of a public benefit corporation is a good starting point for aligned incentives.
  • Aspirational Brand: Given the cultural dichotomy between our smart phones and the dumb choices they seduce us into, there’s an opportunity to redefine the relationship between human attention and technology.
  • 21st Century Human Potential Movement: Attention is prior to health, fitness, a life well lived, and the actualization of our fullest capacities. I believe a synergistic relationship between persuasive tech and human attention can unlock human potential at scale.
  • Agency is Hope: Our worldview, our perspective for the future, everything changes when we are empowered to consciously direct our attention and make good choices. We won’t be able to solve climate change in a state of addiction, nihilism, and apathy.
  • Market Trends: Proactive Behavior Change is a major health trend of the 2020s, and digital therapeutics for prescriptive behavior change are gaining traction. As distraction is creeping on us at ever-increasing intensity, habits and behavior change go from a personal-development-niche phenomenon to mainstream popularity. Duolingo, Calm, etc. have proven that massive mobile-first subscription businesses can be built around education, mindfulness, and health.
  • Traction: We launched the beta to a small audience in December. We’ve since seen great conversion rates, exceptional retention, and an enthusiastic response from our customers:

Continue Reading

Part IV: Attention and Apple
Part V: To Reinvent Human-Computer Interaction, Starting with a Blank Sheet of Paper (work in progress)

Conclusion: An Opportunity to Liberate Ourselves From Limbic Capitalism

...and our limbic limitations altogether?

“The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.” — Tristan Harris

In a symbiotic relationship with persuasive technology, we may be able to evolve god-like attention — the profound capacity to navigate life more successfully than we ever have before.

So many people have utterly failed at creating examined, successful, satisfying lives — and we can’t blame them, because culture, education, environment, etc have not set them up well.

What if, by upgrading people’s attention, we could completely transform the baseline of human health, wisdom, and development?


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