[Book] Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention - And How to Think Deeply Again
Johann Hari is an author of several New York Times best-selling books, an executive producer of an Oscar-nominated movie, and he’s written for some of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines. His book, Stolen Focus, is about how and why society has lost its ability to pay attention. I highly recommend this book. If you read no other book this year, please read this one.
What I wanna do in this entry is share some key points in the book that stood out to me. So if you haven’t read it yet, spoiler alert.
Now first off, I agree with the initial premise that there is an attention crisis. Like Hari, I have personal experiences of the attention of the people I care about being so degraded to the point that it’s impossible to have meaningful interactions with them anymore. Every attempt at a shared activity is punctuated by incessant smartphone checking and context switching.
Social Media And Smartphones
Out in society, at least half the people in any given public area are on their phones. Many of them don’t even see it as a problem that they constantly interrupt their day to enter digital Skinner boxes (social networks) and sometimes to play mobile games. People check their phone while they’re going out to eat, while out on dates, while driving, and while having sex. I think the only reason people don’t notice how big of a problem phones have become is because they’re too distracted to notice.
As is pointed out in Stolen Focus, the in-cells’ addiction is not a personal failing. It’s the inevitable consequence of unchecked capitalism combined with algorithms that only improve at capturing people’s attention for longer and longer periods of time. Most of the information about social media wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. It was just nice to hear someone else validate my observation that everyone is being driven crazy by it.
There’s More to The Story
Before reading Hari’s book, I thought ‘all’ we had to do was get rid of social media and/or social media, then attention would come back. But as he lays out in his books, the real story is much more complicated and interesting than that.
Higher Educational Expectations And Less Free Time
One of the things Hari pointed out was how structured our lives have become in recent decades. Children spend their formative years forced through a woefully outdated education system which requires them to sit in class for up to half their waking hours not even counting time for homework and studying. Children today are expected to know much more than their grandparents did and at a much younger age. Modern children also suffer from paranoid parents who permit them almost no unsupervised time with peers.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that when children are only allowed to do highly structured activities leaving no time for free exploration, they get hyperactive and their attention degrades. Then we end up with children being diagnosed with ADHD and given medication when their only real problem is a lack of freedom.
Productivity And Employment
It doesn’t get much better for adults either. We live in a culture that’s always telling us we need to be more productive. Our minds never get the chance to just wander. Thanks to automation, bullshit jobs, corporate greed, and other reasons, people work more now than they did decades ago and are less financially secure. Thus working adults aren’t getting enough sleep. Neither are children nor university students. Everybody is sleep deprived and stressed and it’s taking a massive toll on our collective attention.
As if work weren’t bad enough, thanks to how fast news travels in the information age, we are in information overload all the time. As Hari puts it, we are drinking from a fire hose. We have unprecedented access to knowledge and entertainment related to any subject at any time we want, all just a few clicks away.
Most of us feel like we’re missing out if we don’t view new information constantly even though we don’t retain most of it. We forget that there was once a time when people read only the weekly paper and were probably no less informed about important events than we are.
Pollution And Processed Food
Something from the book that may surprise you and that definitely surprised me was that the roots of the attention crisis can be traced back all the way back to the industrial revolution. Since then, increased environmental pollution and the proliferation of ultra-processed foods have severely degraded our attention. We increasingly live in a chemical soup that evolution didn’t prepare us for and it’s destroying our attention.
In his book Stolen Focus, Hari also talks about cruel optimism. Cruel optimism is when people promote individual solutions to collective problems, shifting the blame onto individuals for not having enough “willpower” to fix the problem in their own case. “Just turn off your notifications” is not a solution.
Hari points out that even the guy who wrote the book on willpower struggles with overcoming distraction. Any thinking person should be able to see that individual willpower is a losing strategy for fixing a society. It only distracts from real solutions that involve societal change.
Hari covers all these topics in detail and more in his book Stolen Focus. If anything I’ve mentioned here has piqued your interest, please go buy the book. Don’t just download it. It took him a long time to research and investigate this topic and he deserves to be rewarded for his effort.