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Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari

This entry is part 18 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

Stolen Focus is a book about something a lot of us have been struggling with for years, but which a lot of people I know have found surging to the fore during the pandemic: a growing sense of difficulty paying attention, reading, and disengaging from the digital world. We all seem to be well aware of this problem—google the word “doomscroll” for one indicator of how powerless and trapped so many of us feel—and I think it’s common for us to blame social media, or at least to blame the toxic business model that has turned social media into such a toxic hellscape. 

Hari’s argument is that we miss the point when we claim this. Obviously the toxicity of social media is part of the problem, but there are many other factors in play: our industrialized education system, our chronic, society-wide states of stress and sleep deprivation and poor eating, the pollution in the very air we breathe. Trace all these causes back to their ultimate source, he argues, and you arrive at the idea that capitalism has metastasized: limitless growth is only possible now by cannibalizing the health, life, and time of its captive audiences, us, in ways that drive us to consume more, even when it’s killing us. We’re not just burning down the world, we’re consenting—to whatever degree consent comes into it—to having ourselves burned away from the inside in the process.  

This presents a problem for people like Nir Eyal, who—if he doesn’t come across as the villain of the piece—certainly comes across as a major part of the problem. Eyal argues that the real issue is one of personal responsibility. Sound familiar?

This is pretty damning since, as Hari makes clear, an important part of Eyal’s career has been focused on  engineering social media to be as addictive as possible. Eyal, whose expertise is “behavioral engineering” and who talks about “how to manufacture desire,” offers quibbles about that word, “addictive,” arguing that social media is “habit-forming” but not “addictive.” It’s a weird bit of sophistry: he also used the word “hooked” (which is a common synonym for “addicted”) in the title of one of his books on the subject of “habit-forming” technology. As a major tech investor whose wealth was built in part by social media platforms being built in a way that drives increasing regular engagement, Eyal pretty much comes off like a heroin dealer who claims his customers choose to come to him over and over again, and avoids the question of whether he ought to stop dealing smack. One sould not take seriously the answer offered by an oil magnate when he’s asked whether or not we should stop burning fossil fuels.  

Honestly, it’s quite eerie to see this “personal responsibility” angle in the area of social media: that playbook has been roundly debunked in other areas where it’s been mobilized, like in climate change and COVID. (Even the most dutiful recycling of your plastic waste hasn’t done a bloody thing to slow down climate change, and no amount of personal responsibility will keep you safe from COVID indefinitely now that most governments had decided to “let it rip.”) The idea of personal responsibility is all well and good, but if you don’t directly acknowledge how limited it is and how powerful are the forces that can override it, you’re peddling a mirage, almost always for self-serving reasons. You can quit Facebook, but you will still be bombarded by ads; you will still be breathing polluted air; your kids will still be schooled in a system that shuts down natural modes of learning and natural interest in the world; you will still be working at a screen that affects how you sleep. 

After all, personal responsibility never made a dent in people’s lead exposure when governments allowed auto fuels and paints containing lead to be sold.   

Still, the fact Eyal’s arguments are self-serving doesn’t prove that Hari’s very big-picture theory is correct. It’s worth being cautious accepting it too quickly, not just for this reason but also for Hari’s blemished track record as a journalist, which a few critics have made sure to mention in their reviews. (To be fair, he did some pretty incredible stuff, as Wikipedia’s page on him makes clear. To also be fair, while he claims that some of the accusations are unfounded, he’s apologized for at least some of the inexcusable things he did.) Hari seems aware that this would come up, and provides extensive annotations in the back of the book; on the website for the book, he even includes supplementary endnotes, a tiny errata page, and even recordings of all the quotes he includes in the book. 1  

Hari also reserves his response to critics of his theory for late in the book—which makes me hesitate a bit. Someone who saves the evidence against their argument for the end (after it’s well established in your mind) can be hard to trust. Then again, if he’d presented the arguments against his position early on, that might reek of both-sides-ism, which has not done us any good as a civilization. Likewise, while he states right in his introduction that some of what he’s arguing is speculative, and is careful to highlight this along the way, he also talks to top experts and makes a great effort to construct convincing arguments. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t find his use of autobiographical material in the book a weakness: to me, it demonstrates an important fact, which is that he has a dog in this fight. So, he argues, does every one of us. I admired the shape of the book, too: it’s constructed in a way that makes you feel as if the onion skin is being peeled back, layer by layer, one insufficient explanation after another being set aside, or rather, set in the pile, because as Hari notes, it’s a cluster of problems that are doing our heads in.      

Since Hari arrives at the (honestly, compelling) conclusion that late capitalism is the problem, it’s interesting to see the solutions he suggests: grassroots movements for change—to force governments to defend us better against its destructive forces—and ultimately, dealing with the insanity in our capitalism. He isn’t for abolishing it altogether, but he does present an argument for steady-state capitalism, for example. I was primed for that idea already, I guess: I’ve been arguing that the idea of infinite expansion is basically insane for decades. I think Hari’s right to wonder how in the world we’re supposed to get from here to there, though: we live in a world were the bulk of power lies in the hands of eager proponents of the exact sort of insane capitalism we practice now, and they’re not going to change or fix that on their own, not willingly. This, I fear, is a dilemma that, like global warming, we’re leaving to our kids and grandkids to solve… and it’ll likely be much harder (if not impossible) by then. 

In the short term, though, the book has also confirmed that my efforts to get off Facebook completely, and to reduce my use of Twitter, are a good idea. I didn’t need that confirmation, but it’s nice to have. But I get a sinking feeling most of the world isn’t going to be willing or able to disengage from that addiction, and that it’s going to hamstring any efforts to solve the bigger problems that imperil us collectively now, and in the future. 

Series Navigation<< <em>The Cursed Chateau</em> by James Maliszewski, illustrated by Jez Gordon<em>Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time</em> by James Gurney >>

  1. Well, almost all of them: he does omit recordings of conversations with children, though he says he submitted those to the publisher for verification.

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