Our attention is collapsing. In the US, college students are only able to focus on a task for 65 seconds…. And office workers can manage just 3 minutes. Our inability to focus isn’t a personal failing… nor is it a flaw… our focus has been stolen by powerful, external forces.
Johann Hari is the author of three New York Times best-selling books, and the Executive Producer of an Oscar-nominated movie and an eight-part TV series starring Samuel L. Jackson. His books have been translated into 38 languages, and been praised by a broad range of people, from Oprah to Noam Chomsky, from Elton John to Naomi Klein. Johann’s TED talks have been viewed more than 80 million times. The first is named ‘Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong’. The second is entitled ‘This Could Be Why You Are Depressed or Anxious’. In His latest book, ‘Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention’, Johann Hari talks about his three-year journey, interviewing more than 200 of the world’s foremost experts on why our attention spans have shortened, and who stole our focus. Hillary Clinton (former US Secretary of State) says, “In his unique voice, Johann Hari tackles the profound dangers facing humanity from information technology and rings the alarm bell for what all of us must do to protect ourselves, our children, and our democracies…”
In this interview, I speak to Johann Hari about how our focus has been stolen, the devastating consequences to each of us, our society, and what we can do to reclaim our attention.
Q: Why did you want to write about how focus is being stolen?
[Johann Hari]: With every year that passed, I noticed that my own ability to focus and pay attention was getting worse. I felt like things that required deep-focus- things that are important like reading books, having long conversations… these things were getting more and more like running up and down an escalator. I could still do them… but they were getting harder and harder… The average office worker now focuses on any one task for 3 minutes. One small study found that the average college student focuses on any one task for only 65 seconds.
I wanted to understand what’s happening here and went on a huge journey around the world, interviewing over 200 of the world’s leading experts on attention and focus. I learned that there’s actually scientific evidence for the 12 factors that can make your attention better or worse, and our attention has been getting significantly worse for the past few years. The two main learnings- first, if you’re struggling to focus and pay attention, it’s not your fault. It’s happening to all of us, daily. Second, your attention hasn’t collapsed, it’s been stolen from you by big forces. Once we understand those forces, we can begin to build meaningful solutions.
Q: What are the twelve factors that are impacting our attention?
[Johann Hari]: My book is anchored around the 12 key factors that can make our attention better or worse. Cause One: the increase in speed, switching and filtering. Cause two: the crippling of our flow states. Cause three: the rise of physical and mental exhaustion. Cause four: the collapse of our sustained reading. Cause five: the disruption of mind-wandering. Cause six: The rise of technology that can track and manipulate you. Cause seven: the rise of cruel optimism. Cause eight: the surge in stress and how it’s triggering vigilance. Cause nine: the deterioration of our diets. Cause ten: the rise of pollution. Cause eleven: the rise of ADHD and our response to it. Cause twelve: the confinement of our children, physically and psychologically.
Q: What are the consequences of our focus being stolen?
[Johann Hari]: Think about anything you’ve ever achieved in your life that you’re proud of… starting a business… being a good parent… learning to play the guitar…. It will have taken a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. When your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down, so too does your ability to achieve goals. When you can’t pay attention, you’re a less competent person… and when you’re less competent, you feel less good about yourself. If you can’t achieve your goals, solve-problems, and improve over time, you become anxious, unhappy, and potentially depressed. I think a lot of us can feel this happening and if you have a society that can’t pay attention, it becomes harder for us to collectively achieve.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that globally, we’re having the biggest crisis of democracy since the 1930s. At the same time as we’re finding it hard to focus and pay attention, we also can’t listen to each other and sustain our attention on collective problems.
We must deal with this attention crisis for lots of reasons; it makes us feel bad as individuals, it makes us less able to achieve our goals. Ultimately, a society of people who can’t pay attention will start to have all sorts of collective problems as well.
Q: Why is there not more uproar about our focus being stolen?
[Johann Hari]: The terms of the debate have been set by big-tech, and they are making it quite binary – splitting us into groups who are pro, or anti, technology. That’s how they’ve framed the debate. Of course, when you hear that, you think, ‘…well, I like my laptop and phone, so I guess I’m pro-tech!’ That’s not the real debate. Everyone is favour of technology, nobody suggests we all give up our phones and laptop but what we do need to debate are the goals of our technology, and whether technology is working in our interests. Today, we have technology which is specifically designed to hack and invade our attention – and it doesn’t need to be that way – technology could be designed to help our attention and achieve our goals. This may seem like a lofty goal, but it is possible.
Q: Is this problem solvable?
[Johann Hari]: When you and I were young, the standard form of petrol was leaded, and our paints were leaded too. It was discovered that exposure to lead can profoundly damage our brains (the brains of children in particular) and so having paint in our walls, and in our air from fumes was clearly bad. A group of ordinary mothers banded together and decided to do something about it. Importantly, they didn’t say, ‘let’s get rid of all paint and petrol!’ they campaigned to remove the component of the pant and petrol that was harming children’s brains. They fought like hell… they fought for years… and they won. There’s no lead in our paint anymore… there’s no leaded petrol anymore… As a result of this campaign, the average child is 3-5 IQ points higher than they would have been had lead not been banned. That’s a great model for how we should think about tech.
We’re not anti-tech. We’re pro-tech, but we need technology that works for us and intersects with our interests. I spent a lot of time interviewing people in Silicon Valley… these are the people who design the technology we, and our kids, use all the time.
Tristan Harris was a very senior figure at Google. He worked on the development of Gmail, and at Google they wanted to increase the number of Gmail users and increase the number of times per day they accessed and used Gmail. Tristan and his team had an idea…. They said, ‘why don’t we make it so that every time someone gets an email, their phone vibrates?’ – a couple of weeks later, Tristan was walking around San Francisco, and he starts hearing those vibrations everywhere like electronic birdsong. He had this moment of realisation, ‘oh shit… we did that…’ That decision, made so casually in the process of developing and shipping product, was causing over 10 billion interruptions every day. It was really damaging people’s attention.
What can we do?
Today, as soon as you open Twitter, TikTok or Facebook, those apps start to make money out of you immediately. They make money out of you in two ways. First, they show you advertising… Secondly, and much more importantly, they gather huge amounts of data on you and your behaviour which is analysed by algorithms and then used to push products and content back to you. They are hacking your attention to keep you scrolling and clicking.
In the same way that those mothers stood-up and said that lead in paint and petrol was unacceptable, we must stand up and say that a business model based on secretly tracking us in order to find, and exploit, weaknesses in our attention is not acceptable. It’s immoral. Technology companies push back and say that there are no business models which can fix this, but that’s simply not true. The simplest business model is subscription – you pay a certain amount for access… we do this all the time with Netflix, HBO, Spotify…. Another business model is to treat these platforms as a public good, like our sewers for example. Right now, to use this analogy, our sewage pipes are giving us cholera!
These companies will never do this on their own accord – it will take a movement to press for regulation. Social technologies have transformed everything about society in an unimaginably quick time frame. To give you an idea… the axe existed for 1.4 million years before someone decided to put a handle on it. The internet has existed for less than 10,000 days.
Q: How is cruel optimism impacting us?
[Johann Hari]: Cruel optimism is a phrase invented by Lauren Berlant. Imagine big problem with complex causes like obesity… we have a challenging food supply chain…. We’ve built cities that are impossible to walk or bike around…. We have depression and attention problems… Cruel optimism is where someone says, ‘I’ve got a solution for you!’ and, in effect, distracts you from the reality of the problem and the complexity of the problem.
Let’s think about this in context of our battle for attention. You can try to have self-control, but every time you try, there are 10,000 engineers on the other side of the screen who are working to undermine your self-control. Cruel optimism is where someone comes along with a very simple app which says you can mediate for a few minutes a day and it will give you your attention back. It’s optimistic because you’re offering a solution in an upbeat tone – but it’s cruel because solution is small, and incommensurate to the scale of the causes. You are in effect setting up people to fail.
The alternative to cruel optimism is not pessimism. It’s authentic optimism where you honestly describe the causes, and we collectively build solutions. There are solutions we can implement individually, such as phone-safes that prevent us using device, but… these will only get us so far… it’s like someone is pouring itching powder over us, all day, every day. The same person pouring itching powder over us is also the person saying, ‘mate… try this meditation app….’ We need to be saying, ‘…fuck you! Stop pouring itching powder over me!’
Q: What can we do to reclaim our attention?
[Johann Hari]: I’m 43, and when my grandmothers were 43, one of them was a working-class woman living in a tenement in Scotland. The other was a Swiss woman living in a wooden hut on the side of a mountain. When my grandmothers were the age, I am now, they were not allowed to have bank accounts in their own name because they were married women. It was legal for their husbands to rape them – it was legal in much of the world for a man to rape his wife, just think about that. Both my grandmothers left school when they were 13, nobody cared about girls learning. My Swiss grandmother wasn’t even allowed to vote when she was the age I was now. My grandmothers hated what was done to them. They could see their lives were thwarted and they weren’t able to reach their full potential. For example, my Swiss grandmother loved to paint and draw – she was told to shut up and get in the kitchen… that’s what women were for. Well… what happened… some women started to fight… they persuaded more and more women in their cause…. They fought in their homes, in their workplaces, in their schools, universities, cities, countries…. And while we have a long way to go, we have come a long way. I think of my niece who is now 17. She loves to paint and draw… nobody would even dream of telling her to shut up and get in the kitchen. We work to support her art… support her with art school…. Everything we can do to help her succeed. Even the craziest wingnut wouldn’t suggest my niece shouldn’t be allowed a bank account… or that it should be legal for her husband to rape her… or that she shouldn’t vote. These huge societal changes came because of an enormous movement of ordinary women and sympathetic men who fought and fought.
When we think about reclaiming our attention, we need to create a movement, we need to raise consciousness.
Today, most people (particularly young people) know something’s gone wrong with their attention, but most people blame themselves. My grandmothers hated that their lives were thwarted but hadn’t experienced the kind of consciousness-raising feminism that could have transformed their lives. They basically thought…. ‘Well, this sucks, but that’s just how the world is…’ Many people today hate what’s happening to their attention, but they think this is just like bad weather.
Together, we can change these things. This isn’t a force of nature we’re dealing with… our attention has collapsed because it’s been stolen. We need to take it back. We’re not weak… we’re not peasants begging at the court of King Zuckerberg for a few little crumbs of attention…. We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our minds. We can take them back if we want to.