Lost Focus – Johann Hari’s feasible solutions to our burning problems

April 13, 2022 at 4:08 am | Posted in capitalism, Democracy, depression, digital technology, dreams, Leisure, Living creatively, media negativity, mental illness, stress management, writers' health | Leave a comment
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Tsunamis of information are drowning us

We’ve lost our ability to focus. Tsunamis of information are coming at us, drenching us every minute of every waking hour. We can’t keep up with it, mentally or emotionally. What we sacrifice when we try is depth. Not to mention sanity, peace of mind and our democracy.

In other words, the stakes could not be higher. Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus (Bloomsbury, 2021) is an important book, beautifully written, which outlines practical solutions for the problems that unregulated social media has unleashed.

While researching this book, Hari interviewed 250 relevant experts worldwide. One of them was Aza Raskin. You mightn’t have heard of him but chances are, he’s influencing your behaviour every day. His dad invented the Apple Macintosh for Steve Jobs. The internet used to be divided into pages. When you got to the bottom of one, you had to decide to click a button to get to the next page – an active choice that gave you time to think: do I really want to continue reading this? Aza designed a code that took away that choice: infinite scrolling.

All social media now uses a version of this. It automatically loads more when it gets to the bottom. It will scroll infinitely.

Soon after his code took effect, Aza Raskin began noticing how his friends seemed unable to pull themselves away from their devices. He did some sums, and calculated that his invention was making people spend 50% more time than they otherwise would on sites like Twitter. For many it’s vastly more. He saw people becoming angry, hostile and lacking in empathy as their social media use rose. Had he invented something that not only drains away people’s time, but ‘that tears us, rips us, and breaks us’? (p. 116)

Turning hate into a habit

64% of extremists find their way to extremist groups through Facebook directing them through its ‘Groups You Should Join’ function. If enough people are spending enough of their time being angered, this begins to change the culture. It turns hatred into a habit ‘as we spend our lives dancing to the tune of algorithms that reward fury…’

Fake news travels six times faster on Twitter than real news.

It’s not a coincidence that democracy is facing its worst threat since the 1930s. Democracy requires its people to pay attention to problems and come up with solutions to them and to hold leaders accountable.

People who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions – and less likely to see when they fail. (p. 12)

I saw interviews of Americans who had voted for Trump, believing his lies, thinking his policies would lift them out of poverty, and who were now worse off than ever, unemployed and homeless. They didn’t blame him – they blamed themselves. It’s so sad.

What children need

It would always have been hard to resist the sophisticated human-hacking of surveillance capitalism, but Hari outlines the other causes making us increasingly vulnerable to it. More stress, less sleep, poor nutrition, sugar addiction and chemical poisoning. These issues are well-researched in this un-put-downable book, as is the lack of time adults have to mind-wander (a vital step in creativity and happiness) and the lack of time children have to play – outside and without adult supervision. They need this – time to explore and experiment, to take small risks and form social bonds.

Finnish teachers must by law give kids 15 minutes free play for every 45 minutes of lessons. There are only 0.1% Finnish kids with attention problems. The Finnish education system is right up the top of the best in the world. Unlike Australia, whose global education rank is rapidly sliding backwards, the Finns spend hardly any time on testing, assessing and evaluating.

Children have needs and our society is not meeting those needs. Johann Hari sums it up: ‘We don’t let them play freely… our school system deadens and bores them. We … expose them to brain-disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere. It’s not a flaw in them that, as a result, they are struggling to learn attention. It’s a flaw in the world we built for them.’ (p. 256)

There’s a reason sleep-deprivation is torture

The author also examines the role of sleep in our inability to focus. Our economic system is based on sleep-deprived people. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your brain becomes literally clogged with toxins. And we need enough sleep emotionally too. The REM state that enables deep dreaming only happens towards the end of eight hours sleep. As Hari asks:

What does it mean to be a society and culture so frantic that we don’t have time to dream?

Continuous growth requires over-worked people, and also, if we’re asleep we’re not buying stuff online. ‘The growth machine has pushed humans beyond the limits of our mind – but it is also pushing the planet beyond its ecological limits.’ The two problems are intertwined.

The climate crisis can be solved. We need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and towards powering our societies by clean, green sources of energy. ‘But to do that we will need to be able to focus, to have sane conversations with each other, and to think clearly. These solutions are not going to be achieved by an addled population who are switching tasks every three minutes and screaming at each other all the time in algorithm-pumped fury. We can only solve the climate crisis if we solve our attention crisis.’ (p. 276)

This crisis is human-made, and it can be unmade by us too.

It’s not our smart phones themselves, it’s the way they and social media are designed. It could be designed differently and it could be regulated. Aza Raskin believes it should. It is not hard technically, he says, to redesign tech and social media so that instead of trashing yr attention span they are redesigned to heal them. Financial incentives could be made for that instead of the former. And it’s perfectly possible to switch off things that polarise people politically.

To flourish to its potential, Hari argues, your focus needs certain things: play for children and flow states for adults, ‘to read books, to discover meaningful activities that you want to focus on, to have a space to let your mind wander so you can make sense of your life, to exercise, to eat nutritious food that makes it possible for you to develop a healthy brain, and to have a sense of safety.’ And you need to protect your attention from too much stimuli, intrusive technology designed to hack and hook you, from stress, exhaustion, processed food and polluted air.

Our minds are orchids

‘We took our attention for granted, as if cactus that would grow even in most desiccated climate. But it’s more like an orchid, requiring great care or it withers.’

Despair isn’t just self-defeating – Hari presents evidence that it’s empirically wrong! Forces as powerful as tech companies have been defeated in history before and it always happens the same way: ‘It is when ordinary people form movements and demand something better, and they don’t give up until they have achieved it.’ Let’s take his goals:

  1. Ban surveillance capitalism.
  2. Introduce a four-day week because people who are chronically tired can’t pay attention.
  3. Rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely because children who are imprisoned in their homes won’t be able to develop a healthy ability to pay attention.

Sound impossible? The author’s friend, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace and his team were drawing up a plan to force the government to end all new coal mines and new power stations in Britain, leaving all the country’s existing coal in ground. Hari burst out laughing at this impossible idea. But within five years every single new coal mine and new coal power plant in Britain was stopped and the Government closed down all the ones that already existed.


‘Hope is not something you have. Hope is something that you create with your actions.’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In my country (the state captured by coal and oil corporations and very little democratic process left in the vast wash of bribery and corruption) it’s easy to lose hope. Kafka’s words to his mate Max Brod are often on my mind. I paraphrase: ‘So there is hope, but not for us.’ Especially at this time, when the rest of the world (not Brazil but many, many countries) are stopping fossil fuels and changing to renewables, and when we’re building up to an election where enough voters will do what they always do: fed by Facebook and Rupert Murdoch lies, they’ll vote against their own best interests. But don’t listen to me, I might be wrong and I desperately hope so – listen to Johann Hari!

He lists 29 different groups who are already fighting to improve things. Join some! If you don’t do something to make a change, you might be lying on your death-bed seeing how many likes you got that day on Instagram.

Selected sites from the 29 at the end of this magnificent book:

Center for Humane Technology https://www.humanetech.com

On children being allowed to play https://letgrow.org

On resisting pollutants that damage attention https://littlethingsmatter.ca

plus European Society of Endocrinology (ESE) https://www.ese-hormones.org

plus Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) https://www.env-health.org

Also occasional messages about reclaiming our attention from the author at www.stolenfocusbook.com/mailinglist

I am adding courageous journalist Carole Cadwalladah’s TED talk




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