‘Our attention has been stolen by powerful forces’: Johann Hari

Johann Hari

Johann Hari

The viral Netflix documentary Social Dilemma clarified that with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram we are not the consumer, but the product being sold. Our attention is being surveilled and packaged to advertising companies who pump our timelines — now an infinite scroll confected by an addiction-fuelling algorithm. One of the consequences of this, as argued by journalist Johann Hari, is a radically shortened attention span.


Hari, after the scandals in 2011 involving his plagiarism, took time off and boomeranged back with books tackling charged issues such as drug addiction ( Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs , 2015) and depression ( Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression , 2018). In his latest book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention (Bloomsbury, ₹599), he broadens the question of attention beyond social media. What are all the things that rob us of our focus? What can we do as individuals? What should we do as a society?

His argument is bleak: that as individuals there is only so much we can do. His solutions are, thus, systemic and radical — nationalising Facebook like the BBC, creating a paid-subscription model for social media, introducing four-day work weeks, banning surveillance capitalism, and letting children play freely without parental helicoptering. In a Zoom interview, he discusses these solutions and some of the criticism they have received.

What were the triggers that led to you pursuingabook on this topic?

I noticed that my own ability to focus got worse. Things that needed deep forms of focus, like reading a book, were getting harder and harder. I would blame my will power, but looking at the young people in my life alarmed me, where nothing still or serious could touch them. This seemed outside the norm. So, I went on a long journey from Moscow to Miami to Melbourne interviewing over 200 of the leading experts on attention and focus, and I learned there is scientific evidence for 12 factors that can make your attention better or worse, and that many of the factors which can make your attention worse have been hugely increasing. We are in an attention crisis. One study found that an office worker can focus on any one task for only three minutes. It is not that our attention collapsed. But it has been stolen by these big powerful forces.

A lot of the research you cite in this book is incredibly American and European-focussed. Are there cultural factors that would, perhaps, undermine some of the arguments?

The honest answer is I don’t know. It is a perfectly legitimate criticism. One of the things that is happening is that your society [South Asian] is becoming much more like the West. What the book is doing, then, is to caution you on parts of the western society — like our diet — that have a negative effect on focus.

I want to ask about the pleasure of being online. You have spoken about how the internet has made reading “manic and extractive”. Is there no pleasure then in being online?

Definitely. There are all sorts of pleasures. I had spoken to experts in Silicon Valley who designed key aspects of this world we now live in. Jaron Lanier, a tech guru, gave an analogy that really helped. It used to be completely normal that people used paint and petrol with lead. It was then discovered that exposure to lead profoundly impacts people’s ability to pay attention, particularly children. So what did we do? We didn’t ban paint and petrol. We banned the lead in the paint and petrol. In the same way, when we think of the internet, there are an enormous number of pleasures. So many movements were made possible by it.

Is it possible to have the good bits without the negative effects on attention? Turns out there is. Aza Raskin, who designed a key part of the internet — his father invented the Apple Macintosh — said to me that if you want to deal with the invasive effects of the internet on people’s attention, you have to understand the business model. If you open Facebook or TikTok, the company makes money in two ways: the ads, but also everything you say and do is scanned and sorted by the AI to build a profile of you, to sell your attention to targeted advertisers. Aza said that social media doesn’t need to work that way. His solution was to ban the current business model, like we banned lead in paint. Those companies would [then] have to use a different business model. One of them is a subscription, like a Netflix account. Another one is, like the sewer system, we all pay for the public good.

When you speak of running Facebook like the BBC, isn’t it idealistic? For example, so many governments have tried to ban or regulate sugar and it has always been an issue. What if, like sugar, people want their attention to be hacked?

You are right that we are a mix of desires — parts of us might want to be distracted and parts of us want to be focussed. What we have to do is have a consciousness raising movement that explains the harm it is doing. When I spoke to Professor Earl Miller at MIT, he said that the one thing we need to understand about the human brain is that consciously we can only think of one-two things at a time. That’s it. When we juggle between tasks, it comes at a huge cost — the “switch cost effect”. You make more mistakes, you are less creative, you remember less of what you do. A study by Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon showed that when we are interrupted, it takes, on average, 23 minutes to get back to the same level of focus we had before the interruption.

Sean Parker, one of the earliest investors in Facebook, told a public audience that from the start the question was about, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” He added, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” That’s what people who have been at the heart of the machinery have said.

Lot of the research, like Matthew Sweet noted, is either research that isn’t peer reviewed or that you have quoted in a way the authors have found questionable. Phillip Lorenz Spreen, for example, had tweeted that his research on Twitter trends, which you cite, has been “mixed up in the book”.

If you look at the facts, they are wrong. Let’s look at the study I cited about the typical American college student focusing on a task only for 65 seconds. The individual you mention [Sweet] said this is a small study — and in the book I mention it is a small study — from which I am drawing huge conclusions. But that is just one piece of evidence from an enormous array.

Sweet, who is a historian of the Victorian era, argues this is a moral panic like the panic against comic books in the 1950s and the moral panic against rap music. He sees these discussions from that perspective. I would argue, when you look at the evidence, there is a different historical analogy that was given by Professor Joel Nigg, who is one of the leading experts in the world on children’s attention problems. If you look at the statistics, there were almost no obese people [in the UK] in the 1970s. Then there was a big change in the food supply system from fresh to processed food, and we rebuilt our lives where we are now driving everywhere. It created an obesity epidemic. People early on identified these were worrying trends, to which people responded saying that they were instigating a moral panic. But we should have listened to them sooner. Look at the climate crisis, too. These are both different frames.

I also emailed that chapter to the lead author of that paper on Twitter trends, Sune Lehmann, and his exact words were, “You capture the science accurately.” Spreen is a brilliant scientist but in the tweet it is clear that he hasn’t read the book.

What are some interventions you follow to mitigate if not eliminate the issue?

I want to be honest that with individual interventions there are significant things you can achieve, but it will only get you so far. But in terms of things we can do in our lives, I have a plastic safe where you can put your phone in and lock it for anything between five minutes and a whole day. On my laptop I have an app called Freedom that cuts you off from a specific website or the entire internet. I permanently have social media blocked on my laptop.

For people with children, one of the single biggest things you can do is let them play outside freely, separate from adults. They pay better attention when they are allowed to play around. We also need to change our attitude to get into the flow. We need to do one thing at a time, do something that is meaningful to us, choose something that is at the edge of our comfort zone, nothing too easy, nothing too overwhelming. The final thing is to sleep more. We sleep in Britain an hour less than we did in 1942. The evidence is overwhelming. If you stay awake for 19 hours, your attention will be as bad as if you got legally drunk.

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Printable version | May 24, 2022 9:09:43 am |