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Why we can’t pay attention anymore

In Stolen Focus, ex-journalist Johann Hari tackles our growing inability to concentrate and offers possible solutions.

By Heba Moeen |
PUBLISHED January 15, 2023

Anyone of us can relate to what Johann Hari’s book basically points at. Since the last few months, we are mostly stressed about the chaos around us, are unable to prioritise things that really matter to us, we are easily distracted from reading or writing with full or say maximum concentration, and get bored quickly with working out and relationships. Instead, we somehow fill our days with countless random shortish periods of mindless browsing on the net or scrolling up and down our phones. Our minds feel exhausted to think hard about something, and we want mindless stuff that does n’t take us beyond our zombie existence.

A typical self-help book would give advice on practicing self-discipline, allocate a time for prioritised tasks and maintain certain habits to equip us for becoming productive. On the other hand, multi-tasking and staying connected on social media is imperative for an informed, and highly organised individual as the internet makes life easier with accessibility for all. We wonder if something about us or our environment and surroundings or our thought processes has changed over the last two years of the pandemic.

The fast paced world that we live in today is not just highly demanding, but it comes at the added cost of our collective freedom, meanwhile to maintain focus amidst our deteriorating attention spans has become quite an effort in the tech enabled society that never seems to take a break. What we see today is regress at many levels than progress of the consumers’ minds. It should come as no surprise that tech innovators prefer to have their own children disconnected from tech and opt for sending them to schools which still prefer and orthodox teaching styles.

Johann Hari in his book Stolen focus argues that our focus has gradually been stolen from us over a period of time and that we could be headed towards a human-made crisis, that too, at a global level. Feeling the strong inability to maintain focus and eventually realising the need for a solution, he decided go on a three-month long, tech and gadget free sabbatical where he could experience life as it was before tech become widespread and thus a norm.

He termed this as the much needed ‘digital detox’ for which he gathered the bare minimum stuff including some classics ― War and Peace being one of them ― which he never got the chance to read in the fast paced life he was living. The thought of not being blasted with sometimes dubious news every minute on social media versus a refined and consolidated summary of the previous day’s happenings in the form of a newspaper was nothing short of a blessing itself for him.

The topic that he has gathered proof points for through in-depth research, discussions, and interviews with various stakeholders, referring to over 250 scientific studies, a process spanning three years have been published in the form of this glaring reality which we are faced with today. Hari has mentioned causes in the form of chapters responsible for short attention spans and dying focus.

Modern day parents may perhaps get impressed with schools which capitalise upon AI enabled classrooms and PowerPoint lessons bombarded at the nascent stages of a child acquiring education, the corporate world would instill the thought that multitasking is one of the basic attributes that it looks for in a candidate and that he/she should be a hustler, having the capability of switching between tasks like a modern day robot which must not malfunction.

In fact, as mentioned in the book, it takes an individual on average 23 minutes to regain focus if they get interrupted, meanwhile, most workers never get an hour of uninterrupted work during an ordinary work day. Although this is based on a study conducted the US, it is still relatable for those on the daily grind anywhere in the world.

The concept that human beings are not wired likes computers, they are single-minded and are only capable of carrying one or two thoughts at a time, has been used for computers in the 1960s has been applied to humans. The need to constantly switch between tasks means that we have to reconfigure our thoughts when we jump from task to task, explained by Hari as the ‘switch cost effect’. Furthermore, the need for constantly being connected and available is hampering our problem solving skills, take for instance the boom of Zoom calls during the surge of the pandemic.

Information overload is adversely affecting the ability of people retain whatever gets hurled their way. Once again, drawing analysis and facts from the West, it is known that in 1986, the information an individual being subjected to in the form of TV, newspaper, and radio amounted to 40 newspapers worth of information on a daily basis, something which had risen to 174 newspapers worth of information in 2007, and it keeps counting further now. Hari cautions that we are lacking depth when we trying to focus on doing a certain task amidst a constant spree of interruptions and cites one of the studies which mentioned, “We are collectively experiencing a more rapid exhaustion of attention resources.”

Similarly with the adaptation of reading on screen, the general reading habit is dying down significantly because people tend to scan and skip while reading on screen. One of the researchers reiterated the fact that we live in a society which now thrives upon the values of consumer capitalism and sleep deprived people whose share of an ever-increasing screen time helps contribute to the economic output.

Hari further explains the adverse effects of social media and how after interviews with past Google and Facebook employees, he got to know that engineers are constantly developing strategies to keep users glued on screen for revenue generation through user data sold to advertisers. For instance, YouTube is evidently radicalising people, or that Facebook’s earliest investors mentioned that since its inception the creators focused on the idea of ‘consuming as much of the user’s time and conscious attention as possible’. The concept of infinite scroll makes users spend 50% more time on social media sites. There is strong correlation of people becoming less empathetic and more aggressive with increased social media use, and because of the way the algorithms at Facebook work, quite a number of users show lack in the depth of processing and you would find vituperative comments way too often.

Negativity and absurd content would gain more traction, as such Bolsonaro winning the elections in Brazil, is a prime example being quoted with his supporters having developed maligning content about the opponent which lured voters away. Tristan Harris, the former Google employee terms this general degradation of society because of such factors as ‘the collective downgrading of humans and upgrading of machines’.

Hari also discusses the common assumption where we feel that Facebook is listening to us and as creepy as it sounds can sometimes even hear our thoughts. The reality is that it has created such an accurate model of us as users that it continues making predictions about us, our wants, and what we may be thinking. Scarier yet is that fact that Google has a prototype model of one in four humans on Earth. Our trail online and clicks are gathered to accumulate our digital footprint which is the cost of using free services like Google Maps for example ― it has been explained as surveillance capitalism.

The algorithms of social media sites are damaging focus and have a ‘cascading effect’ on people’s ability to think deeply, eventually being connected most of the time is making them hyper vigilant as they become less of problem solvers and become entangled in less focused thinking. In order to investigate the claims that Facebook was damaging people’s collective attention it formulated a united front called ‘Common Ground’ which justified these findings and while another internal team’s evidence revealed that Facebook algorithms are recommending people to join extremist groups as 64% them were routed as a result of these. Eventually Facebook scientists recommended an anti-growth strategy which meant less business and that is history because that would have been against their business model.

Unhealthy work patterns have also been described as the common culprit behind stealing people’s focus. For example, clocking in extra hours undermines productivity and is not sustainable. Countries which implemented a four day work week were able to maintain healthy productivity levels with employees being able to strike a resilient work-life balance. Similarly, stress enables more distractions and hampers a person’s ability to think, something becoming more prevalent in children as well who now face an increased risk of ADHD, which is more of a cause due to circumstances rather than it being genetic. Other factors, the author explains are processed and unnatural foods which possess food dyes and preservatives.

Overall Stolen focus is the reality check of what we are subjecting ourselves to as once highly sophisticated societies, and it is rather a real-life depiction of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 which though were written far head of their time, showed that what the human mind thinks could one day appear as or become reality. The dwindling intelligence seems directly proportional to the content consumed or vice versa, our local TV content is a prime example. With more entertainment channels came a dearth of meaningful content, while one channel in the past decades produced unmatched intellectual content during an era bygone.

Hari has given his recommendations for rectifying the issues and causes which have been taking us downhill with strong emphasis on the influencing power of individuals like you and me, who may perhaps be uninfluential but possess the ability to bring about change through a collective voice.

As harrowing as people’s feelings about the emergence of a more connected world have been, it’s no exception that some had a philosophical take on it while describing both the pros and cons. English rockstar, David Bowie during an interview in 1999 said: “I think that we, at the time up until at least the mid-70s really felt that we were still living under the guise of a single and absolute created society where there were known truths and lies and there was no kind of duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in. That started to break down rapidly in the 70s and the idea of a duality in a way that we live emerged. There are always two, three, four, five sides to every question. The singularity disappeared and that I believe, has produced such a medium as the internet which absolutely established and shows us that we are living in total fragmentation. I don’t think that we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying!” He could be right, but who knows.

Heba Moeen is a communications professional, an artist and a wildlife photographer. She can be reached at [email protected] All information and facts are the sole responsibility of the writer.