Pay attention to what’s stealing your focus (review of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari)

Would you pay to use Tik Tok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter or LinkedIn?

While these social media platforms are currently free, we’re paying a steep price.

These platforms are pouring acid on our attention, warns journalist Johann Hari. He interviewed more than 250 experts on focus and attention while writing his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again. Hari says social media platforms harm us in six ways.

These platforms have conditioned our minds to crave constant rewards above all else. It’s all that many of us seem to focus on. “They make us hunger for hearts and likes,” says Hari.

These platforms push us to continually switch tasks. We stop whatever we’re doing at work, school and home to check in dozens, even hundreds, of times a day. “The evidence shows this is as bad for the quality of your thinking as getting drunk or stoned,” says Hari.

We’re being fracked. “These sites get to know what makes you tick, in very specific ways – they learn what you like to look at, what excites you, what angers you, what enrages you. They learn your personal triggers – what, specifically, will distract you.”

Enragement equals engagement so the algorithms that run these sites amp up the crazy and intentionally make us angry. “Scientists have been proving in experiments for years that anger itself screws with your ability to pay attention,” says Hari.

We start believing that we’re surrounded by equally angry people. “These sites make you feel that you are in an environment full of anger and hostility, so you become more vigilant – a situation where more of your attention shifts to searching for dangers and less and less is available for slower forms of focus like reading a book or playing with your kids.”

And most concerning of all, Hari says these sites have set the world on fire. “There is evidence that these sites are now severely harming our ability to come together as a society to identify our problems and to find solutions.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that fake news travels six times faster on Twitter than real news. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, falsehoods on Facebook outperformed all of the top stories at 19 mainstream news sites combined. This explains why once rational family and friends believe conspiracy theories, deny science, distrust institutions, cheer on trucker convoys, refuse vaccinations and pledge allegiance to autocrats here at home and around the world.

So what’s the solution? Ban surveillance capitalism and these social media platforms will switch overnight to subscription-based business models. Yes, we’d have to pay to use these platforms but we’d stop being the product that’s constantly distracted, packaged and sold to advertisers.

“Suddenly, Facebook would no longer be working for advertisers and offering up your secret wishes and preferences as their real product,” says Hari. “It would be working for you. Its job, for the first time, would be to actually figure out what makes you happy and give it to you. So if, like most people, you want to be able to focus, the site would have to be redesigned to facilitate that.” Notifications could be batched and served up once a day. Infinite scrolling could be dropped while features that connect you offline with nearby friends could be added.

Expect Silicon Valley to put up a fight. Instead of changing business models, we’ll be told to change our individual behavior by showing some self-restraint. Hari says offering upbeat, simplistic and individual solutions to big problems with deep causes in our culture constitutes cruel optimism. “It is cruel because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail.” And when that solution fails, we’ll believe it’s our fault and won’t hold social media companies accountable.

Hari is calling for an attention rebellion because a distracted life is a diminished life. It’s time we start paying attention to what’s stealing our focus.

This review first ran in the March 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.