Review: How we are squandering our ability to focus, thanks to nonstop tech intrusion

Johann Hari is the author of “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again.” Photo: Kathrin Baumbach

When I sat down to read Johann Hari’s latest book, “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again,” I was flooded with mixed emotions. “Yes,” I thought, recognizing myself in the story. “This distracted multitasking shell of a person the author is describing is me. I know I have bad habits, but I can’t seem to change them.”

Yet, as I read “Stolen Focus,” my emotions shifted. Though many of the statistics Hari cites are staggeringly bleak — we touch our phones 2,617 times a day, our sleep has decreased by 20% over the past century, more than half of Americans in one study reported that they don’t read a single book a year — Hari assures readers that they are not alone in their inability to focus.

Where other books about our relationship to technology tend to focus on personal responsibility, stressing the importance of self-control, “Stolen Focus” takes a step back and examines the ecosystem that created the problem.

Hari spends much of the book examining the ways Big Tech contributes to the problem, such as the use of algorithms that maximize engagement. Though the information Hari presents in these chapters may be familiar to some Bay Area readers, it is not necessarily understood by the lay Facebook user. Hari interviews Sune Lehmann, a professor at the Technical University of Denmark, who has researched attention and the rate at which constant news and media bombard us every day. Hari quotes Lehmann when he writes: “If we don’t change course, (Lehmann) fears we are headed toward a world where ‘there’s going to be an upper class of people who are very aware’ of the risks to their attention and find ways to live within their limits, and then there will be the rest of the society with ‘fewer resources to resist the manipulation.’”

In addition to Big Tech, Hari examines other factors that degrade our attention, such as our diets, pollution and the environment, stress, and a lack of unstructured time for mind-wandering and play in both children and adults.

“Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari Photo: Crown

Hari’s writing is incredibly readable, and the book combines moments of personal narrative—a digital detox in Cape Cod in Massachusetts, visiting Graceland in Memphis with his godson—with interviews of scholars and clear explanations of scientific research and experiments.

One of the most fascinating chapters is about, as Hari puts it, “the collapse of sustained reading.” Hari cites research on the ways that reading fiction increases empathy and also explains the concept of “screen inferiority,” or the way that we understand and remember less of what we read on screens than what we read in books. (According to Hari, there are 54 studies to support this.) This reminds me of a quote by Ray Bradbury, which is printed on one of my favorite bookmarks from Green Apple Books: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Though the subtitle of “Stolen Focus” is “Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again,” readers may come away from the book with more of an understanding of the former, and less of the latter. If the forces affecting our attention are environmental and systemic, as Hari argues, then there is only so much we can do to combat them. As long as companies continue to structure their businesses around surveillance capitalism (the system of profiting off users’ data), our inability to focus may be our new normal. Until our society drastically changes — which, Hari argues, would probably require banning surveillance capitalism or at least highly regulating Big Tech — we are stuck in our current reality.

But hey, at least we’re all in this together.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again
By Johann Hari
(Crown; 325 pages; $28)



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