Krakow Film Festival 2024

An endemic state of distraction

TECHNOLOGY / How society's increased lack of attention has been imposed on us by powerful external forces.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again
Author: Johann Hari
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group, UK

Do you have days when your mind feels so scattered it is unclear where the hours go? Did you ever notice how multitasking or simply scrolling on social media leave you feeling empty and tense? And still, you keep doing it? Do you notice how the first thing you do when you are tired is reach for your phone? Well, you are not the only one.

If you’ve been successful for a while in taking charge and limiting your use of technology, only to get back to the old habits like before or worse, you’re not the only one either. It might seem in your hands, but is it? Projects like Mind over Tech offer useful tools that can help. But as Johann Hari’s new book, Stolen Focus argues – failing at making a long-lasting change is not really your fault. In surveillance capitalism, your attention is a commodity that can be capitalized upon. It’s not in the interest of money-making that you easily disconnect. The result is an environment incentivized to find the best way to keep you hooked and constantly distracted. It is an environment that taps into your weaknesses instead of fostering your potential.

Hari’s focus investigation looks at the effect the lack of focus has on one’s life and expands to exploring what this means collectively the dangers it presents to human society as a whole. And to understand that it digs to the root of how we got here, from information overload to discussing social media algorithms designed to be responsive to hate and conflictual language, and the rise of extremisms on platforms like Facebook and Youtube. He illustrates his arguments with concrete examples of how social media influenced the election results in Brazil and the US. He makes a case – a convincing one – for how the way things are going now threatens the very values of democracy and makes us all vulnerable. On a collective level, the threat of scattered minds means passivity, the dulling of critical thinking, no ability to engage with more significant and complex societal issues and take collective action. And this is especially dangerous in the face of the climate crisis.

Johann Hari
Johann Hari PC: @KathrinBaumbach

The puzzle of distraction

The endemic state of distraction is the effect of a multitude of factors. Digging into each brought Hari worldwide, interviewing researchers, Silicon Valley renegades, and all sorts of experts. Putting them all together and adding his personal experiences in the mix, Hari maps what is essentially a systemic problem.

Bits and pieces, like some knowledge of the impact of technology and social media on our lives, the generalized lack of sleep in the industrialized world, our sugar-packed nutrient-questionable diets, the increase in ADHD diagnoses in children, pollution – all these have been partially discussed in articles and stories you might have read in the media. But the power of Hari’s book is not in taking an in-depth look at each and placing them in context. Or not only in that. The book’s strength is in showing how they all come together to create an environment that is plain unhealthy, feeding on our weaknesses, out of tune with our real nature and potential, and stealing our power to focus, be present, and reflect deeply.

The endemic state of distraction is the effect of a multitude of factors.

The opposite of what makes us content and happy

As an example, exploring his own behaviour with honesty and doing a three-month experiment retreat living without any technology, Hari’s feelings and experiences are extremely relatable. He describes a reality that we take as life as it is but, when scrutinized, reveals a whole set of problems and their causes hidden in plain sight.

There is a huge contrast between what we do, what we crave, what we need, and what makes us happy. We are happy when finding flow, respite, and letting our minds wander. We are happy engaging with real-life connections. Yet we keep doing the things that keep us at the opposite – wired, tired and frustrated, connected yet disconnected. Why?

Debunking the myth of multitasking, scrutinizing the reality of living with an internet-connected screen at arm’s length, adding ego and a dopamine rush in the mix – these make only a part of the explanation. But all stories told and all science explored comes down to seeing the larger picture and understanding incentives.

But all stories told and all science explored comes down to seeing the larger picture and understanding incentives.

Looking at incentives

An individual’s sleep is a small thing to sacrifice for a growth-based economy. A growth-driven economy runs on sleep-deprived, overworked people. And in surveillance capitalism, the incentive for companies like Google and Facebook is that the more you check, scroll, and voluntarily offer pieces of yourself in the form of data, information, and reaction to content, the more money they make. Guarding and pursuing your wellbeing or truly finding means to enhance the quality of your life are things that don’t bring profit. They tap and monetize on our weaknesses instead of fostering our potential. Your time, life, and focus are the raw materials they work with for profit. Unless we change the incentives – they’ll just get better at capitalizing on our wellbeing, with worrying consequences on society.

Hari comes up with solutions too. One is that he explores the idea of having a subscription model for Facebook, where the incentive is serving each of us in finding real-life connections and keeping in touch. He also investigates having companies like Facebook or Google publicly owned – made to serve society instead of stakeholders.

Guarding and pursuing your wellbeing or truly finding means to enhance the quality of your life are things that don’t bring profit.

First step: waking up

There is a long way from now to having big tech publicly owned, and the first step towards change is grasping just how complex and real the problem is. Stolen Focus rings a whole set of alarms. Everything, in a nutshell, comes down to this: if one’s mind and focus are not in one’s control, life becomes bidimensional. It has no depth. It becomes time spent between liking and disliking, wanting, buying, scrolling, racing from one thing to the next, medicating the numbness that comes with all this with even more numbness. That is a wasted life, on an individual level, and the sum of lives spent this way is a collective waste of what we could be and a danger for the big issues we should be facing together as a society. Seizing control over the forces that steal our focus is urgent and crucial. And it is a battle on a battlefield. But the very first step is to wake up.

Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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