Stolen Focus

Are you having trouble paying attention?

Are your kids?

If so, you’re not alone. It’s a problem that’s endemic in modern life, says bestselling author Johann Hari, and it’s causing serious problems for us all.

The inability to focus has reached epidemic proportions. Typically, US college students switch tasks every 65 seconds, office workers stay on task for only three minutes at a time and most workers never get a single hour of uninterrupted work a day.

Hari explores some of the reasons for this – including stress, exhaustion, poor diet, sleep deprivation, pollution, the decline in reading fiction, not making time for mind wandering and loss of free outdoor play for kids.

But one of the key culprits for declining attention spans, he says, is technology. The average American spends 3 hours 15 minutes a day on their phone and touches it 2617 times a day! People are constantly distracted by their devices and spending more time on them than ever. This is reducing their attention span, interfering with their productivity and reducing their ability to understand and recall information.

There’s a good reason for this, says Hari, and that’s because technology is designed to get people’s attention and hold it. He writes, ‘…the phones we have, and the programs that run on them, were deliberately designed by the smartest people in the world to maximally grab and maximally hold our attention.’


For money. ‘…the longer you make people look at their phones, the more advertising they see – and therefore the more money Google gets,’ Hari says.

Hari gives the sample of the ‘infinite scroll’, a tool developed by Aza Raskin that allows people to scroll endlessly rather than click from page to page. Raskin later found it resulted in people spending 50 percent more time on some sites and calculated that, globally, people were spending 200,000 human lifetimes scrolling through screens. Each day.

Big Tech encourages users to spend time on their platforms by giving them positive reinforcement. ‘If you want to shape the user’s behaviour, make sure he gets hearts and likes right away,’ Hari says.

Another technique to hook people’s attention is to position negative or shocking information in a position where users will be bound to see it. ‘On average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something positive and calm’ (‘negativity bias’). Hari says the best words for attracting people to watch a YouTube video are one like hates, obliterates, slams or destroys.

And negative messages can’t help but affect the viewer. ‘If enough people are spending enough of their time being angered, that starts to change the culture,’ he says.

There’s another reason why Big Tech wants us to spend as much time on their technology as possible. And that’s because it allows them to develop a profile of us that can be used to sell us more and more products. Hari says, ‘Every time you send a message or status update on Facebook, or Snapchat, or Twitter, and every time you search for something on Google, everything you say is being scanned and sorted and stored. These companies are building up a profile of you, to sell to advertisers who want to target you.’ It’s so accurate that it can predict what people will want and market that to them as well.

Hari compares this profile to a voodoo doll. He says, ’Why is Google Maps free? So the voodoo doll can include the details of where you go every day. Why are Amazon Echo and Google Nest Hubs sold for as cheap as $30 …, far less than they cost to make? So they can gather more info; so the voodoo doll can consist not just of what you search for on a screen, but what you say in your home.’

Hari calls this ‘surveillance capitalism’. ‘This is the business model that built and sustains the sites on which we spend so much of our lives.’

It can be used for other outcomes as well. Hari reminds us that the campaign for Donald Trump’s election paid Cambridge Analytica to send targeted messages to people that had been profiled in this way.

The upshot is that Big Tech is harming our attention. Hari says it’s training us to crave rewards (eg likes), training us to be distracted by switching tools regularly, keeping people engaged and making them angry. He quotes former Google employee and whistle-blower Tristan Harris. ‘Tristan believes that what we are seeing is “the collective downgrading of humans and the upgrading of machines.” We are becoming less rational, less intelligent, less focused.’

What does that mean for society?

Hari says, ‘We are, I realised, in a race. To one side there is the rapidly escalating power of invasive technologies, which are figuring out how we work and fracking our attention. On the other side there needs to be a movement demanding technologies that work for us, not against us; technologies that feed our ability to focus, instead of fracturing it.’

If we can’t focus on the difficult questions, then how can we address the social and environmental issues that confront us, he asks.

Johann Hari, ‘Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention’, Lond, Bloomsbury, 2022

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