'Stolen Focus' review: Johann Hari demands our attention in his unsettling new book

The former journalist tackles our growing inability to concentrate and offers up possible solutions

Evidence given by Johann Hari in 'Stolen Focus' that there is an attention crisis, and that it’s acute, is more damning than your worst assumptions. Photo: Crown Publishing Group
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"The brain is like a nightclub bouncer," one neuroscientist told writer Johann Hari during his three-year exploration of our attention crisis, namely society’s evermore pronounced inability to concentrate. The brain filters thoughts and other impulses the way a doorman does partygoers intent on entering a popular nightspot. But even the most formidable gatekeeper is overwhelmed when dozens of determined revellers storm his post at once.

This is our brain’s quandary today: the masses of information flooding our senses at hitherto unprecedented speeds have swamped, exhausted and abused us. The upshot of this dismal condition extends far beyond the inability to relish thousand-page reads.

In his unsettling Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — genuinely deserving of an “everyone should read it” tag — Hari argues that our ability to solve the pressing, even existential problems of the day, such as climate change, suffer from the fact that we simply can’t zero in on the complex issues as we must.

Hari’s evidence that there is an attention crisis, and that it’s acute, is more damning than one’s worst assumptions. Studies show that the average US college student switches tasks every 65 seconds, and focuses on one thing for an average of only 19 seconds.

Adults, though, hardly fare better: at the workplace, employees stay with one task for an average of three minutes. Book reading is just one symptom and casualty: between 2004 and 2017 book reading for pleasure had fallen 40 per cent among men and 29 percent for women.

The sheer quantity of information hurdled at us is a large part of humankind’s quandary. The amount of data blasted at one has shot up four-fold between 1986 and 2007, much though not all of this largess made possible by the internet.

But Hari is adamant that Big Tech and digital communication are not the sole culprits.

Hari argues in his book that Big Tech isn't the sole culprit of sapping our concentration. Sleep deprivation also plays a part. AFP

Sleep deprivation, for example, saps our concentration — not a profound observation. But according to the National Sleep Foundation, in our work-obsessed societies we get 20 per cent less shut-eye than people did a hundred years ago. This is the new normal — and thus the default modus vivendi for children, too, who suffer disproportionately from the affliction.

Big Tech, though, is here too at least in part a cause: the blue light of screens impacts our minds for hours after our laptops are shut down, making sleep more difficult.

Perhaps Hari’s greatest revelation, and rightly shocking to him, is that social media and the internet aren’t concentration-ravishing by their nature. Rather, the designers of digital communication technology make social media and news feeds and other apps and sites in a way most maximally detrimental to our attention spans — and they know it. This construction is not inevitable, but a cynical, profit-maximising design of choice.

You could, one Silicon Valley interlocutor told Hari, design tech “with the opposite goal: to maximally respect people’s need for sustained attention, and to interrupt them as little as possible. You could design the technology not so that it pulls people away from their deeper and more meaningful goals, but so that it helps them to achieve them.”

But where’s the payoff then?

Replace screen time with life time

A digital detox, namely going cold turkey by logging out completely — no smartphone, tablet, laptop, nothing — isn’t the answer “for the same reason,” one expert told Hari, “that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep, at an individual level, certain effects at bay. But it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.”

Yes, a system rigged to rob us of our thought space and ability to contemplate. If one can’t retreat to an internet-free island or commune, then what is one to do?

Hari is adamant that blaming oneself is wrong and counterproductive, but he concludes that winning back one’s attention span is, ultimately, up to you.

He emphasises that his is not a self-help book but he offers some sage tips for self help that make sense, and he’s tried them with some effect: slow down, do one thing at a time, sleep more, day dream. Once a first-order news junkie, he now takes six months a year off social media (divided into a few weeks at a time) even having a friend change his passwords to prevent him from relapsing. Hari walks for an hour a day — critically, without the cell phone in his pocket. (A practice I highly recommend!) And he works less, liberating time for slow practices such as yoga, meditation and reading books.

This is important stuff, and not just for the well-being of Hari. We’re in the midst of an urgent planetary crisis. Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, as are temperatures and extreme weather. We have to focus!

Updated: March 22, 2022, 11:17 AM