It’s in this cheerful mood that I read a new book by an old friend, Johann Hari. It’s called Stolen Focus. Like his previous books — Chasing the Scream, his history of the century-long war on drugs, and Lost Connections, on the social aspect of depression — his new book diagnoses most of us as sane and the culture we live in as mad.
The core thesis is this: Create a throw-away consumerist civilization, break families into ever smaller units, add a tech revolution, online addiction, economic precariousness, breakneck social change, endless work, and the collapse of religion and meaning, and yes, people will go a bit nuts. They’ll become depressed; they’ll seek out escapes through opiates or meth; they’ll disappear down rabbit holes of online fanaticism; they’ll seek meaning through work or fame; they’ll tear each other down with glee; they’ll lose the skills for family, friendship, constancy, discipline and love.
Now intensify the isolation with lockdowns. Segregate more thoroughly. Cover faces with masks. Force people to live even more persistently in a virtual world that makes us less connected in a deep way, but more enmeshed in the pathologies of anonymous mobs.
…Hari wants to ban “surveillance capitalism” — making it illegal for social media companies to favor addictive, maddening viral content; he wants a four-day week; he wants to liberate children from over-parenting. He urges us to turn off notifications; leave Twitter; say no to Tinder and Grindr; re-learn the art of reading books or mastering a craft or skill over time; to take walks phone-free so our minds can wander and make connections and remember things that matter. You remember that, don’t you? We used to call it living.
But that’s all anecdotal: does Hari actually present any evidence that shortening attention spans is a society-wide problem? There’s a study on how topics appear and disappear on Twitter more quickly now than a few years ago; some research on how many distractions office workers experience; and a dodgy-sounding but headline-ready statistic about how often we “touch our smartphones” each day (2,617 times, apparently).
It’s not until more than halfway through the book, page 176, that Hari drops what should be a bombshell: “We don’t have any long-term studies tracking changes in people’s ability to focus over time.” In other words, he quietly admits that there isn’t really any strong scientific evidence for the main thesis of the book.
…Indeed, many of the other causes Hari identifies are rehashings of previous pop-science and pop-psychology books: we aren’t sleeping enough (Why We Sleep); kids don’t play outdoors any more (Free Range Kids and The Coddling of the American Mind); we don’t eat the right foods (a million diet books). Of course, it’s not a crime to write a book that doesn’t provide any new information. But Hari’s irritating, breathless style turns every single fact he “discovers” into a startling revelation, every single expert he speaks to into the absolute best in the world. Hari’s research — a series of interviews for a pop-psychology book — becomes an intense, globetrotting journey of personal discovery. His mind is so often blown that it’s little wonder it has such difficulty in paying attention.
…The book builds up to Hari’s ultimate theory for why we have all these attentional problems: it’s capitalism itself! Our blinkered focus on economic growth, Hari writes, puts us in a rat-race that ruins the workings of our brains. We should abandon the idea of growth, he argues, and aim for what the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel calls a “steady-state economy”.