Machines Against the Rage
Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari. Crown, 368 pages.
I often wonder what medieval peasants thought about as they worked. I’m so used to being bolstered by music or audiobooks while I write or do chores, switching over to a social media app when I need a break—but what kept a medieval serf going? Did they worry about the plague, plan the next feast day, obsess over village gossip, sing, chat, sexually fantasize? Did they have long, slow, swooping thoughts about the earth and the sky, their imagination possessed of a hugeness, a steady complexity, that a distracted modern mind like mine can’t match? Or were they so bored they could claw out their own eyes?
For a brief and tantalizing moment in his new book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari is also interested in the medieval mind. “Previous generations felt their attention and focus were getting worse too,” he writes in the introduction to his pop psychology look at the “attention crisis” of contemporary Western society. “You can read medieval monks nearly a millennium ago complaining that they were suffering from attention problems of their own. As human beings get older, they can focus less, and they become convinced that this is a problem with the world and with the next generation, rather than with their own failing minds.”
So the attention crisis has always been with us? Maybe, but the premise of Hari’s book is that the distractions of our age are far worse than usual. You might expect him to rely on research that proves the contemporary attention span is indeed shortening. But—by his own admission—this research is largely nonexistent or inconclusive, so Hari points mostly to anecdotal evidence and cherry-picked data. His nineteen-year-old godson is addicted to Snapchat and can’t put down his phone; the kid is also a high school dropout with an uncertain future, so could it be that he’s depressed? Hari reports on his own experience: he “had just turned forty, and whenever my generation gathered, we would lament our lost capacity for concentration.” Could it be—sorry!—that forty years old isn’t young anymore, and attention span can seem to shrink with age? Hari considers this briefly, and then turns to studies of key phrases used in search engines, social media apps, and Google Books, which find that topics don’t stay in the collective consciousness as long as they used to. (Wikipedia is a noted exception—there, “the level of attention on topics has held steady.”) But do these studies actually tell us anything about “attention,” or simply that we’re exposed to larger and larger amounts of information? Hari quotes experts who claim that this volume of information is all too much, and it degrades our attention, but the causal link is unclear. Is it actually bad to have too much information? Could it be that people in the past had too little? How much knowledge would be just right?
Our thinking these days lacks depth, Hari claims. He quotes one of his sources, the Danish professor Sune Lehmann, who says that “what we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions . . . Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection.” This would land harder, maybe, if Stolen Focus itself contained more depth or reflection. Throughout the book, Hari purports to uncover the social, psychological, and technological reasons for our failure of attention, but he never wonders if it is, in fact, a failure. The most direct study he can locate on attention demonstrates that office workers only focus on a task for an average of three minutes at a time. A separate “small study,” he says, found that college students only focus for sixty-five seconds. (Despite making this second claim a cornerstone of his current marketing campaign, Hari apparently has simplified a finding from a study about multitasking, in which twelve students were found to frequently switch tasks, a matter as simple as checking email while working on a laptop.) Maybe it’s true that workers and students aren’t concentrating, and this lack of concentration is worse now than it has been in the past, but if so, what is the nature of this problem? Thinking again of the medieval peasant: Who would be most put out by a worker daydreaming for hours instead of scything the wheat field? Who is to say that distraction from labor necessarily diminishes a person’s quality of life?
Stolen Focus is Johann Hari’s third foray into big-idea pop psychology, the same field that has made Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker rich and famous. The first of Hari’s mental health books—Chasing the Scream (2015)—covered the war on drugs, and is highly regarded, while the second—Lost Connections (2018)—tackled depression. (He also published a seemingly less lucrative dive into the monarchy a couple of decades ago.) Hari’s big revelation in Lost Connections is that depression is not a mere chemical imbalance; it has a lot to do with social factors. It’s an important argument to be sure, but a few critics pushed back against Hari’s framing: he seemed to be suggesting, in their view, that all psychiatrists believed depression was chemical, and that Lost Connections was breaking new ground by pointing out the importance of social factors in mental illness. The neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote in the Guardian that “Hari’s [excerpt from Lost Connections] repeatedly presents well-known concepts and ideas (even to those outside the medical field) as fringe ideas that he’s discovered through his own efforts.”
The same tone of original discovery permeates Stolen Focus. Hari’s “quest for answers” to the problem of attention takes him across the globe, consulting with experts “from Miami to Moscow, from Montreal to Melbourne.” With their help, he uncovers truths that may shock you—or might not. It turns out that tech companies “are building up a profile of you, to sell to advertisers who want to target you.” What you see on your social media feed is not presented unmediated, but “is selected for you according to an algorithm.” These algorithms deliberately select content that will outrage you because “if it’s more enraging, it’s more engaging.” Hari converses with hundreds of experts on these subjects, and their findings are often presented in the tone of One Weird Trick that explains everything. Hari never finds the one weird trick for fixing your focus, but he suggests “six big changes” he made in his personal life which helped him a bit with his focus issues, as well as “twelve deep forces at work that are damaging our attention,” “six ways in which our technology . . . is harming our ability to pay attention” to all “three different forms” of attention (though he adds a fourth). If numbers don’t work for you, you might enjoy the similes in Stolen Focus instead. Imagine your attention is like a muddy windshield. Say the act of thinking is like a symphony. Picture your brain as a nightclub with a bouncer, filtering out inessential stimuli. Although when you haven’t had enough sleep, your brain is really more like a house party, except you’re trying to host and clean at the same time.
Okay, fine, but this is pop psychology; enumerated lists and annoying similes are standard features of the genre. Not everyone has read or thought about these ideas before: for many people, Stolen Focus may be a useful introduction to the topic of attention. “It’s easy to assume most people know about this,” Hari writes, “but I don’t think that’s true.” He may very well be right. If you’ve been blaming yourself for your lack of focus, it may be gratifying to read that Hari thinks it’s not your fault. In fact, he’s “found strong evidence that our collapsing ability to pay attention is not primarily a personal failing on my part, or your part, or your kid’s part.” If the data supporting his conclusions ends up being a little weak, his conclusions unoriginal, his analysis lacking in depth, does it matter? Again, this is meant to be popular psychology. Yet one of the criticisms of Hari’s Lost Connections was that many of his claims about the efficacy of antidepressants (he claims they “don’t work for most people”) are overstated or based on dubiously sourced material, including a self-help book. Burnett, in his review of that book, concluded:
Hari may have the best intentions when it comes to addressing mental health problems like depression, but this doesn’t seem like a good way to go about it. Asserting yourself as a maverick expert and backing your arguments up with suspect cherry picking of evidence and at-the-very-least exaggerated claims? Such a sensitive subject that affects millions surely requires a more thorough, thoughtful and specific approach than this?
In Stolen Focus, the problem isn’t so much errors of fact as errors of context. Hari asserts that our distractibility is a systemic problem, and it leads to dark places. “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,” he writes. “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.” Ugh . . . the rise of the far right is happening because you’re . . . tweeting too much?
Hari doesn’t cite any evidence for this claim, but later discusses Brazil, where the rise of Bolsonaro was aided by the fake news model of Facebook, which “supercharg[ed] anti-democratic forces.” Hari suggests that Bolsonaro would not have been elected without Facebook: “[Bolsonaro] was way outside the mainstream because he kept saying vile things and attacking large parts of the population in extreme ways.” This is true, but Bolsonaro is hardly the first politician in world history to say vile things and attack large parts of the population. Facebook certainly helped Bolsonaro’s rise to victory—some of his supporters chanted “Facebook!” and “WhatsApp!” after he won—and Facebook’s algorithm has been shown to recommend “racist, fascist, and even Nazi groups,” as well as, Hari laments, “promoting Nazism in Germany.” Now, there once were a number of people who promoted Nazism in Germany, and they didn’t need Facebook. Hari admits that in the case of Brazil, “there were, of course, many other factors at work . . . this is only one—but [Facebook] is the one Bolsonaro’s gleeful followers picked out first.” A clip or two of people chanting does not necessarily equal proof of concept; social media apps didn’t invent bigotry or fake news. That social media apps have a role in spreading it is indisputable; but that they—and your inattention—are primarily responsible for the existence and success of the far right is much harder to prove.
Hari concedes there is a “cruel optimism” in insisting that everybody can fix their focus simply by turning off their phones and meditating more. But it doesn’t help to elevate the attention problem into an existential threat to the planet, either. You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that climate change is happening because we aren’t paying enough attention. “The climate crisis can be solved,” Hari concludes. “We need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and toward powering our societies by clean, green sources of energy. But to do that we will need to be able to focus, to have sane conversations with each other, and to think clearly. These solutions are not going to be achieved by an addled population who are switching tasks every three minutes and screaming at each other all the time in algorithm-pumped fury. We can only solve the climate crisis if we solve our attention crisis.” [Emphasis mine.] But wouldn’t the seas be rising even if we were watching with rapt attention? Presumably Hari must have pondered this as he was enlarging his own carbon footprint by jetting around from Miami to Moscow to Melbourne. We know exactly why the world is burning: it’s because of industrial capitalism. It’s not a mystery, and it’s not the result of a lack of attention. It’s the result of focused, deliberate attempt by fossil fuel companies to make money, which has the known side-effect of endangering all life on earth.
Hari extolls the groups of activists who pressured governments to make changes in the past, such as those who pressured politicians to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were damaging the ozone layer. But he doesn’t mention that it was fairly easy to switch out CFCs for less ruinous alternatives without having to significantly alter the structure of society or the business model of chemical companies. There are already significant activist groups devoted to fighting climate change. But it helps to understand, and to state clearly, what the obstacles are. Is it possible that undoing the system of industrial capitalism might be a bit trickier than switching out CFCs? Hari also mentions the fight to remove leaded gasoline from cars, the partly successful effort to shut down new coal mines and coal plants in the UK, the fights for feminism, gay rights, and eight-hour workdays. But when it comes to climate, he seems to think we’re not ready. We have to attack the smaller target of the attention crisis and surveillance capitalism first.
Hari thinks we should all be more like the ex-Google employee Tristan Harris, who, bothered by the ethical implications of stealing people’s attention, put together a presentation on the company’s ethical lapses. “This was an almost insanely bold thing to do,” says Hari. “At the heart of the machine that was changing the world, here was a smart and talented but fairly junior engineer, still only twenty-nine years old, saying something that directly challenged the whole direction of the company. It would be like a junior exec in 1975 standing up in front of the whole of ExxonMobil and telling them that they were responsible for global warming by showing them images of the melting of the Arctic.” As a matter of fact, in 1977, James F. Black—a senior scientist at ExxonMobil—informed the management committee that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” ExxonMobil knew. They spread propaganda and disinformation about global warming for years, and it worked, even before anyone was staring into a smartphone.
By the conclusion of Stolen Focus, Hari arrives at the “one big cause” of the attention crisis. But he writes, “I was reluctant to reckon with it because it is so big, and to be honest, I hesitate to write about it now, in case it daunts you too.” What is this cause that dare not speak its name? It’s . . .economic growth! I can’t decide if Stolen Focus is sly or thoughtless; when Hari cites case studies that show that a four-day work week can both improve attention and increase productivity, is he trying to slip his book under the radar of business executives? Or does he tout increased “productivity” because he can’t really break out of the pro-economic growth mindset? I hope it’s the former, but I think unfortunately it’s the latter. Hari enthuses about the value of “mind-wandering,” citing professors who say if you let your mind wander, you may be more productive. As long as you’re productive, any activity can be justified. Sleep is important, even admirable, not because it’s pleasant to rest and dreams are nice but because eight hours of sleep will help your focus and make you more productive at work.
But who are you producing for? What is being produced? Most jobs, as the great David Graeber pointed out, are bullshit jobs. If office workers can’t pay attention for more than three minutes at a time, that’s probably because they’re bored to death and TikTok is fun. Stealing time to look at social media may negatively affect your attention span, but if your work isn’t interesting, who can blame you? A medieval serf would have probably fucking loved a smartphone. Hari does acknowledge that it’s easier to pay attention when work is enjoyable, emphasizing the value of “flow states” which only arise when you are “doing something that is meaningful to you.” Many activities that people find meaningful—creating art, gardening, playing sports, playing video games—may not be productive. They might even be useless. When it comes to children, Hari emphasizes the importance of play as part of learning; he leaves out the fact that adults like to play, too, even (possibly especially) if that play does not lead to productive labor.
Though Hari argues for ideas dear to the left—a four-day work week, a universal basic income—he’s largely doing it from the point of view of productivity and putting down your phone. But if attention at work is a virtue then Amazon’s warehouse workers are miracles of attention: constantly working, with phones (until relatively recently) not allowed on the floor. Hari may hope his readership is made up of white-collar office workers who are sick of their own distracted brains and insufficiently plugged into the climate crisis, but executives are likely to be reading too—especially as the book has been praised by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Andrew Sullivan. The critique of capitalism in Stolen Focus is so thin, so hesitant, that it can be easily stripped out, and glorious productivity championed instead.
I doubt social media is good for anyone’s brains, but right now work is worse. Hari describes renting a place in Provincetown, Massachusetts, unplugging from social media, reading only novels and newspapers. “Why haven’t we tried to slow things down to a pace where we can think clearly?” he laments. It might be because the actual pace of events is quite rapid and to pay constant attention is crushing—today it’s pandemic deaths, tomorrow it’s climate destruction. I think a lot about March 2020, and a joke I happened to catch from someone who lives in D.C., something like “I can’t believe people in New York are still going to the gym lol.” Thanks to that tweet, I stayed home. Now, if I’d been a good little productive citizen and closed Twitter and done my work and gone to the gym, sweating my body into a socially acceptable set of numbers, I might very well have caught that first round of Covid. Hari thinks that “we live in a culture that is constantly amping us up with stress and stimulation,” but maybe this is actually, legitimately a stressful time, and it’s better to be honest and aware, stressed, vigilant, nonproductive: better to stay home, half-ass your work, check social media, and get a little fat. What didn’t make any sense in March 2020, and still doesn’t make any sense now, was to be productive. If you want people to actually, meaningfully, pressure industrial capitalism into a degrowth model, then what’s needed isn’t just active citizens’ groups, with well-intentioned and highly focused people organizing cute little protests outside of work, while the ordinary machinery of capitalism keeps chugging along. We need to take far more drastic action. We need to make the bigger machines stop.