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Book Review – Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari

by Canon Mike D Williams

Are you addicted to your phone? Every 12 minutes of the waking day people in the UK check their phones, on average, according to a 2021 Ofcom survey. Our ability to focus has been stolen. This impacts on us individually; a life full of distractions is diminished. Society suffers as we collectively fail to focus on finding answers to the big challenges of our world. Yet there is hope – if we can understand what’s happening then we have a chance to change it. That is the premise of this book.

Johann Hari, a journalist, spent three years researching this book. He travelled the world interviewing people, reading lots of science papers and speaking to industry experts. For years Johann had blamed himself for his decreasing lack of focus. The book starts with the challenge of arranging a three-month detox from the internet living in a house near the beach. There has been a massive expansion in the amount of information we are exposed to and the speed at which it hits us. It can be exhausting – we sacrifice depth in many dimensions. Johann’s webless time allowed him to slow down and learn to read books again and realise how much of his ego he had invested in social media.

Returning to normal life with full web access meant the old habits returned. A digital detox is a bit like wearing a gas mask to avoid air pollution. He dug deeper to find the systemic causes. This part gets to the heart of modern surveillance capitalism and the constant striving for economic growth. Why is so much social media free to use? Because the technology tracks you, manipulates you and then sells your data. Your eyes on the screen mean tech companies sell more adverts. Your clicks build a digital picture of you.

Facebook is designed to connect you to friends. It could let you know which of your friends were in the same location so you could meet up. But it doesn’t. If you meet in person your eyes are off the screen. The algorithm that allows you to constantly scroll down the page was invented to avoid you pausing to refresh the page with the chance of leaving the screen. Now you can delve deeper into meaningless content without pausing.

The debate between individual verses tech companies’ responsibilities goes on. Tools allow you to stop notifications. Techniques exist to manage our inner trigger with a break between impulse and action – if you feel the urge to check your phone – wait ten minutes.

The later chapters explore issues such as stress and vigilance, ADHD and the confinement of children from the outside world. The style of writing is engaging with plenty of stories and insights. It is not a self-help book with simple answers, but he concludes with three big aims including banning surveillance capitalism “because people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can’t focus.” A profound book – the only one that I’ve given a copy of to my children and their families. It is that generation who can create the Attention Rebellion that Johann calls for.