Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention - and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari.
Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention - and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari.
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No, you’re not imagining it and no, it’s not “Covid brain” or early-onset dementia. We really are losing the ability to focus. Our attention spans are evaporating in an ever-growing maelstrom of distractions, as if we are, as Johann Hari describes it, “covered with itching powder, and we spend our time twitching and twerking our minds, unable to simply give attention to things that matter”.

Hari, whose previous books on drug addiction and depression were bestsellers, sets out on a three-year journey to investigate what is becoming one of humankind’s greatest crises. In Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention he interviews an exhaustive array of experts around the world and then fashions his findings into an absorbing — and terrifying — report. The book starts with the annoyance of phone notifications and ends with a world threatened by civil collapse.

At the root of the attention crisis is the ceaseless switching we do throughout the day, responding to prompts, calls, emails, and texts, scanning information as quickly as we can, listening with half an ear as another part of our brain is busy planning something else. Our brains, scientists say, are not designed for this. When you turn your attention back to what you were doing, after it has been interrupted, it takes 20 minutes for your brain to reconfigure. If you are constantly being interrupted while you work — a quick check of Twitter, a glance at an Instagram notification — you are losing the time it takes to refocus, and that is swallowing up a lot of your working day, and effectiveness. Our IQs are literally shrinking.

Hari describes the mindset we should be aiming for — the “flow state”. Most of us have experienced it at some stage: when we are so absorbed in a task that time seems to melt away and we lose all sense of ourselves. It may be a climber inching up a rock face, a painter starting on a canvas, or someone learning to ride a bicycle. The flow state doesn’t happen by chance; we need to choose a single goal and push ourselves to the edge of our abilities in executing it. The flow state, focusing for long, enjoyable stretches, is essential to creativity, he says, to living well. “Starved of flow, we become stumps of ourselves, sensing somewhere we might have been.”

But we are wrong to believe that our inability to pay attention is our fault alone. We shouldn’t, like cheating dieters, be whipping ourselves for our lack of willpower to resist another few minutes of scrolling or glimpse of a cooking reel.

There is a lethal war being waged for our attention, he warns; a war that we are losing.

We all know that media companies make money out of us: that Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok et al earn money from advertisers who want “eyeballs”. When we’re looking at our screens, they are making money. When we’re not, they don’t. And so, they manipulate us in every way imaginable to keep us glued to our devices.

... until we force our leaders to protect us from surveillance capitalism, we’re going to continue to be swept along in a tide we cannot control.

Hari meets some of the Silicon Valley designers and engineers responsible for the tech that keeps us scrolling, and the behavioural psychology they use to do it is deeply unsettling. Some of them, like Tristan Harris, one of the creators of Instagram, have left the industry, appalled by the monsters they have created. Because, as becomes clear, it doesn’t have to be this way.

It is entirely possible for tech to exist in tandem with healthy attention spans. For instance, Facebook could parcel up all notifications, to be delivered just once a day, instead of constantly interrupting us. But that would mean less eyeball time and less advertising, so it has never been implemented.

There is an even darker element to the attention war, and that’s what is known as “surveillance capitalism”. As Hari describes it, this is the business model that “tracks you online in order to figure out your weaknesses and then sells that private data to the highest bidder so they can change your behaviour”. This business model, he argues, could be outlawed by governments.

Just think how lead paint was banned after it was found to damage the brain, or how CFCs were prohibited when we realised they were destroying the ozone layer.

The point is, society has in the past changed itself for the better — equal rights for women is a good example — and, with regard to technology, it could do so again. But, as Hari demonstrates, it is only by solving the attention crisis in the first place that we can collectively shape a better society. Right now, we are too fractured, too frenzied, to understand what needs to be done.

He lists a number of practical ways of preserving your focus — turn off notifications, leave your phone in another room, take digital detoxes — and shows how we can learn to think deeply again, but until we force our leaders to protect us from surveillance capitalism, we’re going to continue to be swept along in a tide we cannot control.

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