In his new book, Johann Hari investigates how our brains have been broken by technology — and what we can do to fight back.
The typical American worker focuses on a given task for just three minutes. Each day, we touch or check our phones more than 2,000 times, and spend more than three hours staring at them, on average. So says Johann Hari, an author who has previously written about depression and addiction, in his new book “Stolen Focus.” It is an investigation into how we got ourselves into this distracted state — what Mr. Hari describes as an “attention crisis.”
Some factors that Mr. Hari identifies seem straightforward, like the current business model of Big Tech, which makes money in direct proportion to the attention people give it. Other factors he unearths are less commonly discussed, from what we eat (highly processed food, filled with refined carbohydrates) and how we sleep (by some accounts, less than we used to) to the nature of American childhood, with its widespread loss of autonomy. Mr. Hari calls for an “attention rebellion,” a drastic collective action to force major changes, such as instituting a four-day workweek and letting children have much more unsupervised free play.
Here, condensed and edited for clarity, is a recent conversation with Mr. Hari about what it will take to reclaim our minds.
Do you see a connection between the topics of your three books: depression, addiction and attention?
J.H.: There’s always a mystery in my head that I genuinely want to investigate. With this book, I could feel my own attention getting worse. Things that required deep focus, that were core to my sense of self, like reading books and having deep conversations, were getting more and more like running up a down escalator. I could still do them, but they were getting harder. And I could see this happening to most people I knew.
I also think there’s a deeper connection. With each of these phenomena — depression, addiction and our attention crisis — we think of them as primarily individual problems and individual flaws. But these are phenomena that are occurring within an environment. As Dr. Joel Nigg, a psychiatry professor who is one of the leading experts on children’s attention problems, put it to me, we need to ask if we are facing what he called an “attentional pathogenic culture,” a culture that is undermining the ability of most of us to focus.
What about the pandemic? How have the events of these past two years contributed to our fractured sense of focus?
J.H.: It has made us more stressed, and we know that stress triggers a state called vigilance — and vigilance is where you find it harder to focus because your brain is scanning the horizon for danger.
The other thing is it’s given us this dystopian vision of the future. Naomi Klein argues that we suddenly got slammed forward to where we would have been in 15 years time with regard to technology. It has shown us a vision of the future that many of us hate. In the last two years, I have not once heard the phrase, “Hooray, another Zoom call!” So it’s given us a vision of the future we are moving toward that we can now consciously choose to abandon and move toward a much better future.
On that subject: There are those, like the writer and tech expert Nir Eyal, who say we need to be individually accountable for our own discipline around screen time, rather than blame technology for our distractibility. You call this “cruel optimism,” which you define as a solution that sounds good, but won’t work.
J.H.: At the start of the research for the book, I had essentially two stories for what had happened to me. I thought: “One, you’re lacking willpower. And two, someone invented the smartphone.” I decided to exert my willpower, and I went away without my smartphone for three months. I spent three months in Provincetown, Mass., completely offline, in a radical act of will. There were many ups and downs, but I was stunned by how much my attention came back. I could read books for eight hours a day. At the end of my time there, I thought, “I’m never going to go back to how I lived before.” The pleasures of focus are so much greater than the rewards of likes and retweets.
Then I got my phone back, and within a few months, I was 80 percent back to where I had been. I only really understood why when I interviewed James Williams, who I would argue is the leading philosopher on attention in the world now, and he said to me, “It’s like you thought the solution to air pollution was for you personally to wear a gas mask.”
I’m not against gas masks. Gas masks are great. But they’re not the solution for air pollution.
If quitting technology for a sustained period of time isn’t the answer, what were some of the techniques you found effective on an individual level?
J.H.: I sleep more, for at least eight hours. I have a time-locking container, which I put my phone in for four hours a day when I write. And I won’t sit down and watch a movie with my boyfriend unless we both lock away our phones.
There are people who argue that worrying about the influence of Big Tech on our attention is just the latest moral panic, akin to the outrage that greeted the printing press. How do you respond when you hear that argument?
I used to believe that this was the case. But I think the evidence is really overwhelming — and I think most people can see it. It’s also urgent because many of the factors that are invading our attention are poised to hugely accelerate. Think about how much more addictive TikTok is than Facebook. There has to be a movement on the other side, of all of us who say: “No, you don’t get to do this to us. We want to have a life where we can think deeply. We want to have a life where we can read books. We want to have a life where our children can hold conversations.”
To that point, the diagnosis of A.D.H.D. has soared since the beginning of this century. Roughly six million American children are now diagnosed with it. But you unearthed ambiguity on this subject — researchers don’t agree on whether A.D.H.D. is a strictly “biological illness.”
J.H.: Of all the topics in the book, this was the one where the scientists I interviewed disagreed the most. The evidence is fairly clear that there are some people whose genes make them somewhat more vulnerable to attention problems. However, the extent to which those attention problems are driven by biology has been somewhat overstated. This is the first human society ever that has tried to get kids to sit still for eight hours a day. No one has ever done that before because it’s an absolutely idiotic thing to do.
So, I think the diagnosis of A.D.H.D. can be good because it tells children, “This is not your fault.” But I think it’s harmful to give them an exclusively biological story, saying, “This is just a problem in your brain.”
Your solution to all of this is to start an “attention rebellion.” What does that look like?
J.H.: The first step is consciousness raising. It’s everyone coming together and saying: You think you’re failing because you can’t focus, and actually it’s happening to all of us and it’s happening for big structural reasons.
Casey Schwartz is a journalist and the author of “Attention: A Love Story.”
Johann Hari on How to Reclaim Your Focus – The New York Times