In the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma (which took me two years to gather the courage to watch), former Google employee and tech ethicist, Tristan Harris asks an important question:
How do you tell people that they’re in the Matrix?
The answer? You don’t. You show them.
One of the people who decided to show us is Johann Hari, who pulls the curtain aside in his newest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again.
Of course, when I began reading this book, it was to examine my own ability to focus, or rather inability—until recently.
When you work on long-haul projects like a novel, you can’t write in short, manic bursts. It takes a tremendous amount of focus and time, even when you’re not actively writing.
So while I’m good at focusing deeply when I’m in a “flow state” (while writing, making art, reading, or engaging in challenging physical activities), in the past few years, I found my attention becoming more and more scattered, and it began to bleed over and into my writing life, specifically when I worked on one particular novel I’ve been wrestling with for years, one that requires a ton of online research.
I’d sit down to write, get halfway into a scene, and have to stop and look something technical up. Soon, I found myself deeply entrenched in a Wikipedia wormhole, at the end of my creative rope, with no fire left to write afterwards.
I began writing in shorter forms, tried to work on other projects, but the start-and-stops started to build, and it alarmed me in a way nothing had before—I wasn’t the type of person who just stopped doing something when it got challenging. Just the opposite—so what was happening to me? What was happening to us all?
Stolen Focus answers good chunks of these complex questions.
The thing is, I could only read this book because I made many of the changes I needed to a while ago. Not because it’s a difficult read. It isn’t. It’s entertaining, accessible, and revitalizing.
But the changes in my own life were essential for me, personally, to be able to read this book. Examples: I don’t get online after 2 p.m., I stay off social media whenever possible, and I have a daily meditation practice that’s been a game-changer.
In other words, I’m confident that both my attention and focus are in better shape than they are in most people.
But that’s because a long time ago, I started noticing how manipulative technology was becoming and paid close attention to how I felt when I spent too much time on it. I began to see social media as a time-eater and waster, creating unrealistic expectations and brittle egos.
Human beings are not designed to be intimately involved with several hundred people at a time. We’re not. If we have one, deep, close friendship in our lives at any given time, we’re lucky. The rest is an illusion.
I also knew, deep in my bones (and from a family member who worked at Facebook for approximately two weeks, quit, and told us he couldn’t work there, no matter how well he was paid, because it was ‘pure evil’), that it (Facebook), as well as Twitter et. al., was instrumental in the factionist, tribalist, outrageist, disconnected, and egocentric society we’re now immersed in.
Welcome to the Matrix, kids. But Johann Hari assures and reassures us that it isn’t our fault. And it isn’t, not entirely. Ah, but it isn’t solely the fault of technology, either.
However, tech became the gas on an already smoldering fire.
At the beginning of the book, Hari speaks candidly about his own struggle to control his ‘tech addiction,’ for lack of a better term, and it wasn’t something I could necessarily relate to—but I could have, ten years ago.
As Hari’s journey unfolded, I began to look around me and see the 1s and 0s lining the walls of my home, my life, my relationships, and more. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the way people communicate and connect, people I’ve known for years and consider friends, and after speaking to them, or trying to, I think, “Where have they gone?” It’s like no one’s “home” anymore.
Were all my friends and family developing a type of early-onset dementia?
What’s important to note here is that this is not an anti-technology book.
On the contrary, this is a book that will free you from the unseen monkey you’ve felt on your back for years. It is a dismantling of what you think you already know about technology because technology is not a tool, not anymore.
A tool is something that waits to be used. It’s neutral. Your tech is not neutral. Your tech is demanding the most important, vital commodity on earth—your attention. And you don’t have a chance against it. I don’t care who you are. Unless you work in this industry, it’s just you and you against algorithms designed to steal your focus.
I’ll repeat that. DESIGNED TO STEAL YOUR FOCUS.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to be distracted from my entire life anymore.
Now, if you think you’re smarter than buildings and buildings with rooms and rooms and rooms filled with AI-intelligence, and cleverer than teams of computer scientists and programmers who studied “persuasive technology” at Stanford and then designed algorithms in your tech to do exactly what it’s doing to you, then you know all this and you can skip the book.
But you’re not smarter and you shouldn’t skip this book or others like it, books that show you how to take your life and focus back, because it’s the most essential and relevant cause of our lifetime.
If you were born into technology, it might be a challenge to read it—hard to see the forest for the trees. But if you were alive before this current state of “surveillance capitalism,” this book is a call to arms and a personal wake-up call that helps you, as cliché as it sounds, to free your mind.
In a nutshell, Stolen Focus shows us what’s happening to, not just our world, but THE world, and then shows us how and why we must create more humane technology.
When people rhetorically ask what has gone wrong in our society, my response is always the same: “Nothing has gone wrong. Society is working according to the dictates of capitalism, pure and simple.”
The problem? When you combine capitalism with the exponential growth model that is the tech industry, designed to capture and hold human attention, WE are the commodity, and therefore we are the ones enslaved. The truism “nothing is free” is even truer, here.
But this is where the tech giants screwed up because they didn’t factor in a pandemic, did they?
The pandemic, which forced us into isolation, gave us a glimpse, as Hari states in the book, of what a touchless, human-less, isolated tech-addled life would be like, and we didn’t like it.
Thanks to that, it isn’t just middleclass or working class or the more vulnerable classes of people who are losing themselves, it’s everyone—everyone except a small handful within the tech industry, and of those few, there are even fewer who sample their own wares because they know—they designed it—how addictive and uncontrollable the urge is to “use” technology as it has been designed.
If you doubt all this, ask yourself how Google knows which ads will turn your head. Sure, it’s convenient, but since when does “convenient” equate to better for you? Any McAnswers?
Ask yourself why, when you get on Facebook, you only see a fraction of a fraction of what’s happening with your friends’ lives.
The truth is, no one sees what you write or post anymore either, and if they do, that’s a targeted calculation made by an algorithm for one purpose and one purpose only—to capture attention and keep it, which translates into keeping them and you—from living your best life, from being mentally and physically healthier, from developing deep relationships and other meaningful ways human beings create and experience true joy.
Joy and meaning only come from the deeper things life offers us, but we’ve been missing them due to an invisible hand, yanking our chins toward a screen to scroll and scroll and scroll… infinitely.
Johann Hari included all the research at the back of the book—I’m making my way through all of that—and I will get through it, but in the meantime, if you feel as though you’re scattered, then this book is a way, one small way, to take vital parts of your life back.
His conclusions bring a sense of understanding and clarity to the many anxiety-provoking issues we’re facing as a society. His overall message brought a sense of profound relief that we can do this—together. We have to.
Personally, as I’ve been spreading this message as far and wide as possible, I’m hopeful as I meet more and more people who are seeing technology as it’s currently designed, and are choosing less tech-heavy and dependent lives.
However, it isn’t enough to personally change your relationship with tech, and so within this book and others like it are the next steps we must take.
The concepts within Stolen Focus are essential and vital if you want to experience joy; if you want your children and grandchildren to know joy.
You must read it. You must.
If you can’t read long-form anymore (or yet), begin with the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, above. This book, the film, both are empowering and hopeful, despite their seemingly dystopian portend.
While we don’t have a red pill—which, sadly, I doubt anyone would take if they were offered it without some sort of pretense—we do have some incredibly smart, dedicated people offering us a glimpse behind the curtain, past the code, and into the truth.
Yes, it is. And it’s time to get in the only game that matters.
Je te vois, and as always–