We’re all drowning in distraction. “It felt like our civilisation had been covered with itching powder,” writes British journalist Johann Hari near the beginning of this insightful, global investigation, “and we spent our time twitching and twerking our minds, unable to simply give attention to things that matter.”
Many of us are incapable of focusing on any one task for a sustained amount of time. The reasons for this are varied, from social media addiction to little sleep to an inability to reach the “flow state”. This, Hari explains, is when “you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself”.
This is Hari’s third book, after Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs and Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. His latest work is a revealing and frankly concerning look at why our species is failing to focus. He claims that the ability to collectively organise, plan and solve problems is being eroded by design.
The reasons are everywhere. The book is peppered with countless new, old and sometimes contentious studies. Societal empathy, he says, is dwindling. Most men don’t read fiction and Hari cites a study by Raymond Mar, a professor of psychology at York University in Canada, that shows how this can lead to an empathy deficit. Mar is not addressing just book storytelling: he means any entertainment, including TV shows or films, that engages you in a sustained way. Men reading more nonfiction doesn’t have the same effect. “You simulate being another human being so well,” Hari explains, “that fiction is a far better virtual-reality simulator than the machines currently marketed under that name.”
Hari acknowledges the class issues at play. Most people don’t have the luxury of throwing away their iPhones or totally switching off Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. It’s not just Mark Zuckerberg’s fault: increasingly busy and insecure lives breed distraction. Covid-19 has accelerated trends that were already in play: more screens and more stress are the perfect opportunities for big tech to hook us into an endless loop of scrolling. Hari wants citizens to fight back. He argues for a four-day week, banning surveillance capitalism and allowing children more time and space to play freely.
The significance of this book lies in its relevance to vast swaths of the population. At many points I recognised my own foibles, my descent into a mental state where I always think I need to know the latest news. I’m not alone.
Bloomsbury Publishing, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari".
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