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“Your focus was stolen”: Johann Hari on why you can’t pay attention

Journalist Johann Hari takes on surveillance capitalism and a digital detox in his quest for focus.

What happened to our attention spans? Journalist Johann Hari has some answers. Photo: IMAGO / MASKOT

You almost certainly won’t make it to the end of this interview without getting distracted. After all, there are a million other things on the internet that look more seductive. That’s not our fault (because it’s very interesting), and it’s not because of some personal failing you have either: It’s because your attention is, right now, being attacked, besieged, and destroyed by vast social, environmental, and economic forces. Everyone is having their focus stolen from them, and according to journalist Johann Hari’s new book Stolen Focus, this is a crisis afflicting the entire world.

Ben Knight caught up with Johann to find out more about the book – and how we can reclaim our attention spans.

The book starts with a three-month digital detox you did in a small coastal cabin in Provincetown, in the US. What made you do that?

Johann Hari: I had noticed for a long time that my own attention was getting worse. It felt like, with each year, things that required deep focus like reading a book were more and more like running up a down-escalator.

I could see this happen to lots of people around me, and I noticed there were some quite eye-catching figures about this. The average American college student now focuses on any one task for only 65 seconds, the average office worker now focuses for only three minutes.

My journey to Provincetown was early in my research, when I was still in the mode of blaming myself. When I couldn’t pay attention, I thought, “Oh, God, you’re weak, you’re lazy, you’re not good enough.”

But what I learned is that there’s scientific evidence that certain factors have been increasing in recent years that can harm your attention. That’s what led me to conclude that we’re in quite a serious attention crisis. Your attention didn’t collapse. Your attention was stolen from you.

The book identifies 12 different ‘causes’ for our diminishing attention spans. Some of them will be obvious – social media, for example. Some of them might be surprising – pollution. Which would you say is the single biggest one?

JH: Well, what’s interesting is the way they interact with each other. Take the one that most people think of immediately, which is the increasingly invasive technology we use. We use social media sites that are designed to hack and invade our attention, as the people who design them admit. But they arrived at a moment when our collective immune system was already down. We sleep now on average an hour less than we did in 1942, children sleep 85 minutes less a night than they did 100 years ago. All the experts on sleep I interviewed at Harvard, University of Minneapolis, other places, explained to me that sleep is absolutely essential for attention. When you’re sleeping your brain is repairing. If you cut back on sleep, your ability to focus and pay attention diminishes significantly.

Or think about something as simple as what we eat. The Western diet causes huge spikes and huge crashes in energy. You eat Frosties and white bread in the morning and it causes a huge surge of energy. Then an hour later, your energy crashes and you are sitting at your desk and you get brain fog.

These are just two of the 12 factors. Those factors interact, they make it harder for us to pay attention. Then these social media sites arrive when we’re already less able to focus.

A machine designed to harvest attention will inevitably lead to a machinery that promotes anger.

Could you explain the link you see between scrolling endlessly on your phone and the political drift towards the far-right?

JH: It’s not that I see a link, it’s that Facebook’s own data scientists discovered a link. We now know from leaked data, in the aftermath of the election of Trump and the victory of the Brexit campaign, that Facebook set up an internal inquiry to figure out if their algorithms have played a role in enhancing radicalisation. It found that a third of the people who joined neo-Nazi groups in Germany joined them because Facebook’s algorithm specifically recommended they join them.

We know that when Jair Bolsonaro, the far right-winger, was elected in Brazil having been a very obscure figure for a long time, his supporters chanted at the rally that night, “Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.” They knew that these algorithms had pushed their far-right leader into public prominence and prioritised him over the other political alternatives that it played a key role. Not the only role – that would be absurd – but a key role in getting him elected. A machine designed to harvest attention will inevitably lead to a machinery that promotes anger.

So what should we do about it?

JH: As the first step, we need to ban the current business model – surveillance capitalism. A business model premised on figuring out the weaknesses in your attention in order to sell them to the highest bidder is just unjust. Let’s imagine that tomorrow we ban this. What happens the next day? Do I open Facebook and it says, “Sorry, we’ve shut down”?

Of course not. What would happen is they would move to a different business model. There are lots of other business models which your readers will be familiar with. One is subscription. We might pay a small amount each month and have access to Facebook. One might be some form of public ownership. We know that before we had sewers, we had cholera with shit in the streets. In the same way, we might want to own the information pipes because we’re getting the attentional equivalent of cholera.

We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our own minds and we can take them back if we take on these big forces. There are two levels at which we do this. There are of course things we have to do at individual levels to protect ourselves and our children. But doing a digital detox like I did will only get you so far. At that point, you will bump into big societal forces which we have to take on collectively. This is a systemic problem and it requires systemic solutions.

This is a systemic problem and it requires systemic solutions.

There’s also a chapter about the importance of allowing children to play at school, and different approaches to education. You visited various schools, including one in Berlin, that have alternative education systems.

JH: Attention is deeply connected to meaning. I spent a lot of time going to schools across the world that are working at infusing education with meaning. I was deeply moved by a school in Berlin, the Evangelische Schule Zentrum. At the start of each term, the kids together choose a subject they want to investigate and learn about. The one when I was there was: Could people live on the moon? Then half of all their lessons are based around exploring that. They explore the history of people going to the moon. They explored the geography: how could we grow something on the moon? The maths of rockets. It’s about infusing education with meaning. There’s good evidence that progressive schools produce children who can pay attention better. That was a great lesson I learned in Berlin.

Right at the end of the book, you discover a surprising root cause to all this: The growth economy. Where did that come from?

JH: As we know, our economy is premised upon growth, right? Well, economic growth can come in two ways. You can discover a new market. Or you can get people in a current market to consume more of the product that you sell. The pressure for constant growth produces a pressure for attention. If I can get you to both watch television and look at Twitter at the same time, I’ve doubled the amount of advertising you’re exposed to, right?

Now there are many, many steps that we would have to take before we get to thinking about the growth machine, and many practical steps. One very practical way of us all slowing down would be to do what they did in a company I went to in New Zealand, where they moved to a four-day week for the same pay and massively improved the workers’ attention and focus.

I suspect sooner or later, somewhere very far down the line, one of the things we’ll have to cut back is the growth machine. To be honest, we’re going to have to think about the growth machine anyway because we are hitting our ecological limits as well as our attentional limits.

British-Swiss journalist Johann Hari is the author of 2021 book Stolen Focus. Photo: IMAGO / agefotostock

Finally, what behaviours did you change after you finished writing the book?

JH: In the corner of my room there’s a K-safe. It’s plastic safe. You take off the lid, you put your phone in, you put the lid on, you turn the dial at the top, and it’ll shut your phone away from anything between 5 minutes and 24 hours. I use that every day for four hours a day. I stress that I’m in favour of social changes that would make it possible for more people to make these kind of changes. I can do this because I’m quite privileged.

Another big part of it is a shift in psychology. I used to blame myself and think I was just being weak and didn’t have enough willpower when I couldn’t focus before. Now I try to go, “Well, what in my environment is hindering my attention and how can I deal with that?” There are also changes that I should make that I haven’t been able to, like changing my diet. I’m just too addicted to the shitty Western diet to do it. But yes, there’s all sorts of changes I can make, and all sorts of changes I’ve struggled with.

Order your copy of Stolen Focus here.