Review: Johann Hari, Stolen Focus

8 minute read


For my first post on this site, a short review of Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, which I read last week. I’m trying to start this blog off with some quick and mediocre content to keep the bar low, keep my perfectionism at bay, and keep me writing. Let’s go!

Stolen Focus could be read as another entry in the growing genre of books warning about the dangers of Big Tech. Or more precisely: about what Shoshanna Zuboff calls “Surveillance Capitalism”: profit models based on tracking and manipulating users across digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Amazon. The book’s first half reviews the seemingly poisonous effect these network platforms have on their users’ ability to focus, pursue flow-state activities, and disengage from the outside world – all crucial habits for cognitive health. But then the author veers towards a set of other ways in which plain old industrial capitalist society also degrades our focus, independent of its recent digital turn. At the end we are left, as a reviewer writes in The New York Times, with “two categories: too much and too little. Too much information, stress, surveillance and manipulation, and ADHD diagnoses. Not enough sleep, novel reading, navel gazing and nutritious food.” I would add “self-blame” to the first list and “childhood play” and “flow-state activities” to the second. I ended this book with a more ready set of tools to diagnose my day-to-day or month-to-month lulls in focus and mental acuity; for that, alone, it was well worth reading.

But the author clarifies several times that this is not (just) a self-help book. While interweaving anecdotes from his rejuvenating off-the-grid summer spent in a Provincetown beach house, he takes great pains to recognize that most people cannot up and leave their devices, much less their jobs and families, without incurring far greater costs than he did. Hari stresses the systemic nature of these drains on human attention, citing both experts and personal anecdote to make clear how difficult it is to durably protect oneself from their effects. He also spends maybe my favorite chapter exposing the delightful hypocrisy of the digital distraction self-help guru Nir Eyal, who years before writing his second book, Indistractible, wrote his first: Hooked: How to build habit-forming products – a Silicon Valley staple.

In general I find his arguments convincing. I’m also inclined to trust them because they confirm my priors. I’ve always felt a strong and marked effect on my attention span, creativity and stress levels from social media use/diet/sleep, and these are exactly the types of causes he picks out. Hari’s history merits some caution, however, since he was the subject of a major scandal in 2011 after British journalists discovered a pattern of fabrication and plagiarism in his work. But he seems fairly committed to transparency here – the entire interview with Nir Eyal is posted online – and despite the extra-critical attention his books now inevitably attract, I couldn’t find any serious contestations of his basic facts online. Where scientists disagree, such as over the basis and correct treatment for ADHD, Hari gives both sides’ arguments, although he clearly has some biases against over-medication.

Unfortunately the book’s weakest points come when Hari tries to tie all of these strands together into one polemical thread. His argument looks as follows: (1). Modernity is characterized by nations’ focus on economic growth. (2). Economic growth can be achieved by commoditizing new goods or speeding up the rate of production and consumption. (3). In the absence of new basic resources, growth has been achieved primarily via the latter option. (4). An increasing rate of economic activity requires more work, faster consumption, and faster communication (including via advertising). (5). All of the dynamics attendant to growth of this sort degrade attention on net. (6). Therefore, growth is responsible for degrading attention.

The argument itself suffers from several weaknesses. I’ll cover two. First, premise (3) actually directly contravenes the story in Zuboff’s work (which Hari cites but doesn’t seem to have read). Zuboff argues – I think rightly – that we should view the most recent digital stage of capitalism as a market expansion rather than intensification: capitalism has mutated into a form which can exploit human behavior as a new kind of raw resource. Most digital companies that we think of as particularly noxious for our attention spans operate on a surveillance capitalist model: they give users a free or cheap product to use, record myriad data about those users’ habits and personal lives, and then sell predictions about their behaviors to advertisers or occasionally more nefarious actors. One could even imagine a similar mutation in a low- or no-growth society in which the intensity of economic activity was constant: as long as surveillance capitalist firms give their customers (advertisers) a competitive advantage, and provide free “products” to their users (their resource base) which benefit from network effects, then I don’t see why such a model couldn’t spread regardless of the overall growth rate.

Premise (5) also gave me pause – while Hari does successfully show that several facets of modern capitalist society degrade attention, I’m not convinced that the on-net population level trend is negative. People in the early 1900s were generally more hungry, stressed out, traumatized, and in many cases sleep deprived than people in developed nations are today. More of their children died young; their lives were more precarious; violence was far more common. Drugs that incur felonies today were sold over the counter. They didn’t have fast food, overprescribed Ritalin and digital devices, sure, but I’m not ready to concede that the general state of cognitive health was better then than now. Others of Hari’s twelve attention-suckers seem simply unrelated to economic growth: what necessary connection exists between growth and changing norms around children’s schooling? Between growth and ADHD diagnoses?

More generally, Hari’s entire polemical approach left me uncomfortable. He seems to have entered with some conclusions already formed (that there’s a downwards trend in attention, that capitalism has something to do with it, and that it’s dangerous), done enough research to confirm those hunches, and then briefly searched about for a theoretical framework that could house his argument and also support his related anxieties about the climate crisis. Degrowth would have seemed an obvious candidate. But when I encounter degrowth as a philosophy in the wild I generally find it underdeveloped, untamed and a bit unweildy, even for understanding climate change. This is a topic for another much longer blog post, but one of the main problems I find in degrowth theory is the absence of concrete social forces other than (perhaps) the neoliberal firm and state. Degrowth essentially says: the ideology of growth has been imposed on the broad public by greedy capitalists and we need to fight back. But who will fight back, and how, and to what strategic ends? Degrowth has no proletariat. I like that Hari acknowledges the social roots of the attention crisis, and I like that he at least recognizes that solving massive social problems is a job for mass social movements. He even leaves a list of nonprofits working in this space at the end of the book. But mass social movements generally emerge around a defined group with defined grievances. If there really is a growing cognitive crisis spurred on by surveillance capitalism, which I believe, then I’m still struggling to understand what social forces might emerge to contest it. Maybe Zuboff’s book can answer this question, but I haven’t finished it yet.

In summary, despite the author’s attempts to the contrary, Stolen Focus might read best as a sort of socially aware self-help guide. The social commentary generally points in the right direction but fails to give either an ideological understanding of the cognitive crisis nor a set of practical near-term actions for social change. But the scientific overview is useful and the framework for thinking about attention and its modern-day opponents will stick with me.