Sunday, May 15, 2022

The price of distraction

Johann Hari, former star columnist of The Independent, suffered a fall from grace after he admitted to charges of plagiarism and viciously attacking his professional rivals anonymously on Wikipedia. However, he has bounced back with bestselling books tackling high octane subjects such as addiction (Chasing the Scream) and depression (Lost Connections).
His latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, explores the growing attention crisis that has reduced a majority of the human populace to tech–addicted zombies. It is a topic anyone who has felt they have been taken hostage by social media will be able to relate to easily. 

 In fact, even as I read the book, I could not help but Google Hari and devote more time that I could afford to spare on the aforementioned scandals spat out by the search engine that had made him notorious as well as successful. But the problem of our lost focus tackled by the book is real and needs to be addressed. Hari sets about it with gusto having travelled the world for the better part of three years gathering research, talking to experts, and laying out the material in typically provocative style. 

The book is replete with personal anecdotes—Hari dwells at length on his digital detox at a small town in Cape Cod in Massachusetts, US, with no smartphone or the internet for three months, visiting Graceland with his godson who had lost himself to gadgets and findings from studies, interviews with scientists, scholars, activists. He does a commendable job of breaking down the science and statistics to make it more palatable for the average ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)-afflicted reader. 

 Incidentally, in one of the more interesting chapters Hari bewails the ‘collapse of sustained reading’ as a direct result of the hostile takeover of human cognition by big tech rightly stating that books are the ‘medium through which most of the deepest advances in human thought over the past 400 years have been figured out and explained and that experience is now in freefall.’ 

 In another fascinating passage, Hari draws on the work of pyschologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to discuss the possibility of defending ourselves from the constant barrage of personalised distraction by training the mind to enter a state of flow where ‘you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away, and you are flowing into the experience itself. It is the deepest form of focus and attention’. Artists and athletes often experience this. The human existence is rendered most fulfilling in this zone, and entering it armed with a meaningful goal and commitment could be a worthwhile pursuit. 

 For the most part, the book emphasises the systemic factors that have robbed humanity of the ability to focus, the ruses employed by tech giants to keep people glued to their screens, thereby, sacrificing collective attention on the altar of avarice, directly contributing to a toxic atmosphere of negativity and outrage that has severely compromised civilised discourse, led to a proliferation of fake news and increased polarisation and radicalisation to the point where we are no longer able to unite for a worthy cause and bring about much needed reform. Hari also outlines the roles played by climate change, poor dietary choices, sedentary lifestyles and pollution in deteriorating attention spans. 

 So far, so good but none of this information is as shockingly revelatory or jaw-dropping as Hari’s highly frenzied style of writing would lead you to believe. After all it is no secret that social media and assorted apps routinely sell personal information to the highest bidders and that these details are used against users to better uphold the interests of surveillance capitalism. The science is also nebulous and as Hari admits, ‘We don’t have any long-term studies tracking changes in people’s ability to focus over time.’ Even the evidence put forward, as Hari freely states, has been strongly contested and there seems to be little consensus on the subject. 

 Consequently, one can’t help but feel, that the ‘scientific facts’ have been selectively interpreted to bolster Hari’s own perspectives and simplistic approach to the problem of reclaiming our lost focus. Some of his suggestions and interventions will no doubt prove to be useful for individuals but the ‘attention rebellion’ he calls for is likely to remain every bit as remote as the odds on my own successful resistance to the siren call of social media and those infernal notifications indicating that someone liked or retweeted my crap. 

 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

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