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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Review – Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention

Katie Schutte explains how Hari's book has changed her attitude to technology.

Stolen Focus is one of the few books I would label ‘life-changing’. Sure, I’ve read many memorable books – it would be hard not to, studying an English Literature degree – but rarely have I finished a book and felt as though my entire life perspective has drastically shifted.

To summarise crudely the recently published book, Hari examines the widespread degradation of our ability to focus and the environmental factors contributing to this collective crisis of attention. Though he primarily scrutinises the impact of technology like our phones, laptops, and the internet, he also delves into how changes in our diet, sleeping habits, and cultural attitudes regarding productivity have drastically altered our ability to concentrate each day.

Hari, who attracted attention with allegations of plagiarism and poor journalistic practice a few years ago, choses an engaging and personable style of writing in his book. He shares his own experience of poor focus and his addiction to technology with honesty and frankness, describing how, when his phone was taken away, he “felt like a large part of the world had vanished […] its absence flooded me with an angry panic”. Unusually for a book exposing some depressing statistics, he voices rallying optimism for our ability, as a society, to challenge the systems that are profiting from diverting and transfixing our attention on online content.

This is what resounds most strongly in Stolen Focus, the fact that our inability to focus is not the result of individual weakness. On one level, this message reassured me. We should not feel guilty or frustrated at ourselves for wasting hours on social media unintentionally. Powerful corporations have manipulated our attention to suck us into the virtual world of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, Hari states. Quoting Professor Joel Nigg, an American psychologist, Hari argues they are fostering “an attentional pathogenic culture” For social media sites, success is measured by engagement – the more time we spend staring at our screens, the more adverts we are exposed to, and this in turn generates revenue. Features like ‘infinite scroll’ – the web design mechanism that automatically and infinitely loads new content without the user needing to click for more – make it extremely difficult for us to peel our gaze away from our screens. This is why, on another level, this book terrified me.

I am yet to watch the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, but friends tell me that the programme similarly examines social media’s ability to condition our minds into craving the frequent and immediate dopamine rewards that ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ deliver. Stolen Focus argues that we were vulnerable to manipulation even before social media was introduced, due to an array of social factors, such as high levels of stress.

What interested me more, however, was Hari’s consideration of less studied factors, such as the decreased amount of time our minds spend wandering. Growing up, we are taught that ‘daydreaming’ is detrimental to our ability to learn in the classroom. Our culture constantly demands our attention, be that the boldly coloured advertising billboards, the constant whirr of traffic, or the buzz of text and email notifications in our coat pockets. Seldom do we find time to digest any of this noise. Our minds exist in a state of turbo-charge, frantically flitting between different sources, engaging with each at only surface-level. By depriving ourselves of time to let our minds wander, Hari argues, we make ourselves more vulnerable to distraction.

After finishing this book, I went on an aimless walk. `I did not bring an audio-book, podcast, or music. It was remarkable how relaxed I felt. I couldn’t remember the last time I did something without a specific purpose. Oxford’s intense eight-week terms reinforce the constant pressure to be doing something ‘worthwhile’ or ‘productive,’ be it academic study, rehearsals, or sports training. Taking time off to rest our minds, however, enables us to attend our activities with focus and clarity.

Hari offers a few helpful tips for improving sustained attention, like finding an activity that is meaningful to you and will fully absorb your attention – a ‘flow state’. However, if you’re looking for a self-help book providing simple steps to solve attention deficit, then this is not your book. Hari continually emphasises that individual lifestyle changes can only get you so far. To truly regain our ability to focus, we need systematic change that will address the larger forces assaulting our attention. This, he convincingly argues, comes down to ordinary individuals like you and me grouping together to protest, because – let’s face it – companies and governments won’t change a system that is immensely profitable unless we demand it.

Stolen Focus is a simultaneously immobilising and empowering book. By addressing the root problems, it demonstrates that individuals are not responsible for their own inability to focus. Yes, it has an element of journalistic sensationalism, with its heavy reliance on shocking statistics such as how the average American in 2017 spent 5.4 hours per day on their phone (that’s 85 days each year), but these are not intended to debilitate us. Rather, Hari manages to weave studies, interviews, and personal insight into a narrative that ultimately strives to enlighten and alert its readers to the importance of focus. Our culture has taught us to undervalue this state of mind, but Stolen Focus reminds us that it is worthy of nurture and protection.

Since finishing this book, I’ve been more mindful when using my phone, monitoring my screen time and actively making an effort to distance myself from social media. I won’t lie, it’s been difficult, and I still catch myself scrolling through the Instagram ‘explore’ page late at night instead of sleeping. But Hari’s book was the impetus I needed for reassessing my relationship with technology, and I now actively pursue other activities over using social media. Each time you pick up your phone, ask yourself, “Do I really need to use this? How will it make me feel?” Nine times out of ten, I put the phone back down.

Image credit: Maxim Ilyahov via Unsplash

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