Multitasking, sleep, stress, smartphones, social media, surveillance capitalism, algorithms, ADHD, EQ, children’s lost right to roam, education, air pollution, and the crisis of democracy.

Do any of those phrases catch your attention? Do they attract your focus?

These are among the many subjects that Johann Hari touches on in his quest to find out who stole our focus in his latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–And How to Think Deeply Again. It makes for sobering reading.

There’s a good chance you haven’t read it. Book-reading is apparently a dying art, as our ability to read for long periods is eroded. Hari quotes the American Time Use Survey of 26,000 Americans, which reports that 57 percent of Americans now do not read a single book in a typical year. By 2017, the average American spent seventeen minutes a day reading books and 5.4 hours on their phone. I suspect the UK figures would be similar.

So if you haven’t read Stolen Focus, I shall summarise.

Hari notes that many factors have contributed to the current crisis of concentration, and that (as with being deemed a failure in a supposed meritocracy) we are encouraged to blame ourselves, rather than the system.

“We live in an extremely individualistic culture, where we are constantly pushed to see our problems as individual failings, and to seek out individual solutions. You’re unable to focus? Overweight? Poor? Depressed? We are taught in this culture to think: That’s my fault. I should have found a personal way to lift myself up and out of these environmental problems.”

But being told to meditate more, turn off your smartphone notifications, or simply try harder, does not help. The system should take its fair share of the responsibility.

“The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world’s attention burns.”

A central problem is that the companies most responsible – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on – cannot separate the theft of our attention from their business model, which:

“can only succeed if they take steps to dominate the attention spans of the wider society. It’s not their goal, any more than ExxonMobil deliberately wants to melt the Arctic. But it’s an inescapable effect of their current business model.”

The longer we stay hooked on their content, the more data they gather about our browsing patterns, and the more valuable that data becomes to the highest bidders, who then use it to target their marketing messages precisely at our current interests – or at least, our current distractions. This is what psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism.

Ultimately, our time is a zero-sum game. Each human has the same number of hours in the day, so the more time we spend scrolling through superficial trivialities, the less time we can spend on things that require prolonged and focused attention… things like active participation in democracy.

“Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them.”

Hari connects the decline in book-reading with declines in our ability to understand complexity and nuance, and our capacity for empathy:

“…the medium of the book tells us several things. Firstly, life is complex, and if you want to understand it, you have to set aside a fair bit of time to think deeply about it. You need to slow down. Secondly, there is a value in leaving behind your other concerns and narrowing down your attention to one thing, sentence after sentence, page after page. Thirdly, it is worth thinking deeply about how other people live and how their minds work. They have complex inner lives just like you.”

He laments that our perpetual distraction is coming at the exact time that we really need to be paying attention. There are important matters that require our full focus.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this crisis in paying attention has taken place at the same time as the worst crisis of democracy since the 1930s. People who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions–and less likely to see clearly when they fail. A world full of attention-deprived citizens alternating between Twitter and Snapchat will be a world of cascading crises where we can’t get a handle on any of them.”

He paints a compelling picture of the need for action, and offers some suggestions:

“I would start with three big, bold goals. One: ban surveillance capitalism, because people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can’t focus. Two: introduce a four-day week, because people who are chronically exhausted can’t pay attention. Three: rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely–in their neighborhoods and at school–because children who are imprisoned in their homes won’t be able to develop a healthy ability to pay attention.”

What do you think? Have you noticed a decline in your ability to sustain focus? Do you lose time diving down rabbit holes, only to emerge blinking into the daylight wondering what just happened? Do you follow links recommended by algorithms? Do you skip the 20-min read in favour of the 2-min read?

If you’ve managed to read all the way through this blog post without getting distracted, congratulations! And if you are now resolving to read a book, I can recommend Stolen Focus


Featured Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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