In recent years, writer Johann Hari has noticed how difficult it was to finish a book. “Or watch a movie without taking your phone out in between. Or have a long conversation without interrupting incoming messages. I feel like you’re trying to climb escalators that go down faster and faster. ”
British-Swiss author, former British newspaper journalist The Independentauthor of, among other things, bestsellers Lost connections (2019) on depression, interviewed more than two hundred attention experts around the world, and also intertwined his own struggle with a declining ability to concentrate in that quest. This led to his new book Stolen focusjust published in Dutch as Lost attention.
His conclusion: “We live in a crisis of attention without comparison,” he says over the phone from England. “There are studies that show that the average American office worker can focus on one thing in just three minutes. And studies show that the average teenager can focus on something for as little as 65 seconds. ”
Harry noticed that too, because sometimes he can’t do even the simplest tasks anymore, while it used to be really different. “My reaction has always been: what about you, you’re weak, where has your willpower gone?” But after writing his book, he thinks about it completely differently. “Suppose someone throws a bucket of mud over the windshield of your car. Then you can get angry at yourself for not seeing anything, but you also have to recognize that someone spilled mud on it. ”
According to him, quite a bit of mud has been thrown on the windshield of our attention in recent years. In his book, he lists twelve social movements that are bad for the ability to concentrate, trends that sometimes reinforce each other. For example, the reduced quality of sleep in many Western countries in recent years, that people have more stress, foods with too much sugar and fat, and especially the growing economy of attention around the smartphone: all social networks and push messages that constantly demand our attention.
Harry is certainly not the first writer to talk about the crisis of collective attention. Critics’ criticisms are often: how do you measure the decline in concentration in the entire population? That seems almost impossible. It is difficult to determine whether our range of collective attention is indeed measurably worse than, say, twenty years ago. “No, that’s right, that information simply doesn’t exist, because almost no research has been done in the past.
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Some of the figures Harry cites, such as three minutes of office workers ’attention or 65 seconds that teenagers can concentrate on, are also worth commenting on. Often these are small-scale, difficult-to-replicate studies that have also been conducted in very specific settings and for very specific tasks: studies cannot be translated individually to the entire population.
But there is so much smoke that Harry thinks he can shout ‘fire’. Take only measurable deterioration in sleep quality. There are studies showing that people in many Western countries sleep an average of 20 percent less than a century ago, he says. “The negative effects of a little sleep on concentration have been extensively studied. So, even if nothing had changed other than worse sleep, it would have seriously affected the attention span of many people, Harry says.
“Think of one achievement in your life that you’re really proud of,” says Harry. “Whether it’s playing a good guitar or in a great relationship, completing a big project: it all requires long-term attention and focus. When your focus is weakened, two things happen: your chances of achieving your own goals decrease, and your chances of solving problems decrease. ” We become less competent when our attention is fragmented, he says. “You become a shadow of yourself.”
We become less competent when our attention is fragmented
“It’s visibly harder for us to talk to each other, to listen to each other. And this is particularly worrying at this time of great global problems, he believes, because the lack of attention affects how well we can solve all these other crises. “How are you going to stop climate change if you can’t think of anything for more than a few minutes?”
Harry also offers solutions. He talks about how it helped him limit his time in front of the screen by arranging difficult meetings with himself. He recommends, among other things, that you keep your phone in a closed box at times when you thought in advance that you wanted to be offline for a while, as a kind of ‘advance commitment‘myself. – It helps me a lot. It also gives tips for better sleep and healthier foods (which also positively affects your concentration). But he emphasizes that this is not a self-help book.
Itching powder in our heads
In his opinion, attention deficit disorder is a broad social problem and should be approached in this way: not as an individual problem that you can solve with a few tips. ‘It’s like someone keeps putting itching powder in our heads and then telling us,’ You should learn to meditate! ‘
The book makes a comparison with the fact that in the early 20th century it was the most normal thing in the world for lead water pipes to exist and for leaded gasoline to be used. This poisonous lead has been shown to have tremendous health effects over time, especially in children.
“This is ultimately limited in legislation, especially after the revolt of civil society groups, such as the parents of children whose health has been endangered.” He calls on a movement of attentionAnd rebellion of attention which encourages companies and politicians to take action.
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But does that comparison with lead hold? Isn’t resolving the attention crisis much more complicated because you can’t just ban one thing? What are you doing to improve concentration? Algorithms? Social media for children? Lack of sleep? Unhealthy food ads?
“Yes, it’s really more complicated than with lead. A good starting point could be to focus social and political attention on the revenue model of social media companies. That business model, ‘supervisory capitalism’, revolves around keeping your attention, the longer you hold the phone, the more you scroll, the more money they make. ”
Companies like Facebook, TikTok and Google do not take the social consequences of their products seriously enough, Harry said. “Our focus is on‘ externality ’in economic terms, just like environmental pollution. If you ask an oil company like Exxon Mobil: do you want to melt the polar caps, the answer is no: no one wants to melt the polar caps. ” But since such a company does not take into account unwanted side effects, it still happens. Technology companies do it with our attention: attention is also an external phenomenon, obviously those companies don’t think it’s bad enough to do something about it because they make too much money on it, Hari says.
The task of getting our attention back is so great that it is easy to become cynical: will it ever succeed? Harry compares it to other social movements that have also brought about major changes in the past, such as the introduction of women’s voting rights, or even the construction of sewage systems in cities. “I think regaining focus is a social task of that order,” he says. “These cases have also been very complex and have certainly not been resolved in a few years. But it finally worked. Because we thought it was important enough. ”
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC on the morning of April 15, 2022