Stolen Focus

A magician shows the author a magic trick. He will hold out playing cards one at a time and the author must, without seeing them, sort them into two piles by colour – red or black. How can he possibly get them all right? To his surprise, he doesn’t make a single mistake. The magician explains how he can subtly direct your attention to get you to do what he wants, to respond how he wants, to pay attention to whatever he wants you to do. You think you are doing it of your own free will – you’re convinced that you are – but you are not. 

This are how all our social media apps work. 

Johann Hari takes us on a journey, explaining the reasons why our attention is reducing across the board over the past few decades and what the future looks like if this carries on. His personal exploration takes his research from one interview to another conversation, gathering insight here and then digging deeper with different expert there.

In an attempt to get his nephew off screens, Hari takes him on a long-promised trip to Graceland to explore Elvis Presley’s legacy. Instead of a tour guide, they are handed iPads that guide them via headphones. An old couple swipes on their screens, looking left and right at the digital version of a room – while standing in the very room. He wants to scream at them to just look up and look around, but he would be the crazy person in this scenario. 

Hari then takes himself off on a three-month sabbatical to Provincetown in Boston, bereft of screens. No, television, iPad or kindle. He takes an old laptop that can’t get online so that he can write, an old iPod loaded with music and podcasts, a stack of books and a phone that cannot even access the internet. His goal is to quieten his mind, find his focus and see if he can essentially get his brain back. His observations of the changes in himself, his emotions and his attention are uncomfortable, fascinating and ultimately, hopeful. 

He retrospectively learns what he did right and where he went wrong. 

In order to inculcate a new habit, the concept of a ‘pre-commitment’ is an important and powerful one – stating your intention to do something makes it easier to do. In order to break a habit, you know where you want to get to, so you plan ahead by taking into the account the actions of the future you. You don’t buy junk food and keep it in the house because future you will end up eating all of it in the middle of the night. You create the conditions that make it easier for future you to stick to your goal. By only allowing himself a phone with absolutely no access to the internet, there was no possibility of his future self breaking his resolve at 3am and getting online. 

Thought the book, he has vivid comparisons that bring home the point, his “desire to absorb a tsunami of information without holding [his] ability to focus was like [his] desire to eat at McDonalds every day and stay trim – an impossible dream.”

The main thing we lose is our ability to think deeply. In a time where we need to band together to survive the looming threats of climate breakdown and extinction, it’s no good if everyone is busy scrolling. The apps, when you log in, tend to push towards more radicalised content. Sustained reading has taken a hit. Hari explains how the same information in the form of print is absorbed better than when shown on a screen, making a pretty strong case against digital readers.

While getting off screens is one thing, getting his mind to fully engage its capacities requires giving it something to work towards – getting into flow. Flow is “when you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away, and you are flowing into the experience itself.” This concept is build on deep research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow. We all experience flow. Painters and writers get lost in their process. They are fully immersed, they may lose a sense of time, they are engaged in the actual process of doing and creating, rather than the outcome.

Three things are required to find flow. First, you need a clearly defined goal. You set aside everything else. No multitasking. Distraction doesn’t let you access flow, or it kills it. Second, what you are doing has to something meaningful to you. Third, it has to be just outside your comfort zone and challenging enough that you have the skills to get there by improving and trying. Too easy and you get bored; too difficult and you get frustrated.

In contrast, our everyday attention is hijacked by social media. These apps need us to stay on there in order to generate money for their shareholders. Hari points out that they don’t show you which of your friends are nearby and open to meeting up in real life. Rather, they show you glossed versions of your friends’ lives that make you feel like you’re missing out. Their business model is to keep you on the app, not to get off it and have a life. As he speaks to the original founders and developers of Instagram and Google, he hears of how they have specifically designed the apps to be so addictive by catching you before your brain has a moment to make a choice. For example, the design of infinite scroll takes away the moment where you had to click on ‘next’ or ‘page 2’ and had a moment to decide whether you actually wanted to do it. It’s not just the likes and hearts that keep us addicted. An email or text fits the bill. Many writers on this subject have noted that if they send less emails, over time they get less email. Their inboxes free up. The lure of productivity is actually distracting you from doing the real work.

He also explores different types of focus. If we are constantly engaged with the little activities in front of us, we lose the ability to zoom out. Losing this means losing our sense of self, who we are, what we want, you’re too focused on the small things, you can’t creative a narrative for yourself as you move through the world and your life. It is overwhelming and exhausting. 

This is illuminating. He brings up the scientific model of the default mode network of the brain and how it is constantly active even when we are apparently doing nothing. We need that unstructured time to have ideas, to absorb information, to feel connected to the world. Instead, we interrupt it constantly by checking our screens. And we literally cannot multitask –  a term that originates from computer processing. What we think is multitasking is us actually switching our attention. When we switch, it takes time to bring focus back to the task in front of us – we have to remember what we were doing and where we were in the task and then pick up again.

Most poignant is Hari’s exploration of “cruel optimism.” We live in an individualistic society that tells us that in order to not be stressed, we must be mindful and think happy thoughts. This doesn’t work when we are being laid off or don’t know where the next pay cheque is coming from in an increasingly gig economy. Telling us to be optimistic in the face of structural hurdles is just cruel.

In his explanation and experiments, he walks the walk, struggling in big and small ways to reclaim control over his own attention and coming up hard against the limitations of individual action. The resulting feeling of helplessness is exactly where the real battle lies. We must not blame ourselves entirely for our inability to put down our phones, turn off our screens and go live life in reality. All the apps capitalise on the parts of our brains that make us susceptible. But if a structural overhaul is needed, then that power lies with us. He offers broad solutions. Governments banning individuals being tracked by the apps. A subscription model means that the social media apps work for you, rather than mining you and literally trying to control you.

He points to easily recognisable moments in history where citizens have been the instigator of change on a global scale.It is only democratic action that has changed times, he argues. His examples are inspiring. Women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, or banning lead in paint when we learned it was poisonous and banning CFCs in products like hairspray when the world learned they were destroying the ozone layer. That feeling of helplessness is the first thing that needs to be eradicated. We can change – in small ways on an individual level, but by banding together for the larger changes, and he offers starting points.

Hari covers a formidable range of subjects in an accessible manner. His own journey through the personal cost of distraction is relatable. It’s worth honing one’s focus on to this book. Its gentle style belies how powerful its message is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: