Book Review:  Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari

I came across Stolen Focus in the library and was instantly fascinated by its premise. I already had enough books in arms, though, and so I saved it for later. Then I made the mistake of reading the article on Hari in Wikipedia, which accuses him of various journalistic misdeeds in an extremely virulent way. He has probably made errors in his citations and stretched the truth now and then, as most nonfiction writers do, but the virulence of some of the Wikipedia comments made me wonder whether someone was deliberately attempting to smear him.

Anyway, I’m glad I came back to this book, because it is a compelling and fascinating read. Hari circled the globe to interview experts on why we collectively seem to have lost much of our ability to focus attention for prolonged periods of time, and at least some of the reasons he came up with have a clear ring of truth. Take it with a grain of salt if you want, but his ideas are at least worth considering.

The first reason he gives for lost focus is the addiction of people to their mobile phones. You can see this as you observe crowds in almost any public place; many have their eyes glued on screens, oblivious of the real wonders around them. Later he emphasizes this phone fascination with a deep look at what social media companies are really trying to accomplish. In the guise of connecting people, they are really trying to make us watch our screens for as much time as possible, because the more we stare at our screens, the more money they make from advertisers. Additionally, while we like, dislike, and comment on things seemingly for fun, the tech companies are compiling information about us, which they then sell to companies so that they can hit us with product advertisements specifically selected for us. Hari refers to this as “surveillance capitalism,” and his description of it is truly terrifying.

Other factors that cause stolen focus are multitasking, rapid switching from post to post, and related behaviors. These include the diminishment of our “flow states,” by which Hari means the ability to focus on things that fascinate us such as artistic pursuits for long periods of time, the lack of patience for sustained reading, the disruption of mind wandering, which Hari insists is essential for our well-being, and sheer physical and mental exhaustion in the modern era.

Hari also discusses “cruel optimism,” which refers to surface level wellness cures that do not address deeper problems, the increase in stress, diets that rely heavily on chemicals and additives instead of natural foods, and the ubiquitous pollution that negatively impacts our health and concentration. In the final few chapters, he delves into the paranoia that causes parents to keep their kids at home instead of letting them play, and the rigid school requirements that curtail creativity, experimentation, and flexibility necessary for children to have space to grow.

Hari’s solution is a social movement with the aim of banning surveillance capitalism, living more healthily, and getting our focus back. Whether you agree with everything he concludes and proposes in the book or not, Stolen Focus is well-written and thought-provoking and I recommend it.

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