Book review: Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
Stolen Focus is the latest book by Johann Hari, in which he sets out to understand the root causes of the decline of attention in western societies.
As has become his trademark recipe, Johann frames the book as his own journey to understand the deep causes of this global attention loss. The book starts with his very personal story of distraction and exhaustion, both of which prevent him from focusing on what matters and makes him lose his sense of control over his life. Throughout the remaining 350 pages of his book, Johann attempts to change via a radical 3 month long digital detox, and to understand through a world tour interviewing experts.
By the time the book was published, in 2022, the topic of how technology distracts us, prays on our attention, is engineered to make us addicted or contributes to weakening the fabric of the societies has become mainstream, culminating with the Netflix show the social dilemma released late 2020.
Despite coming late to the topic, Johann has an original approach that makes ‘Stolen focus’ both engaging and relevant. I like the personal story. Johan is not shy to express his emotions: his guilt and shame when feeling he has no willpower. His withdrawal symptoms when he decided to detach from his phone. I feel he is perceptive and honest about his feelings and sensations regarding his use of technology. This makes him relatable, possibly more so than Cal Newport, the author of digital minimalism, who’s been very intentional with his use of technology from a young age and has never had a social media account. His personal account also makes the practical solutions he advocates and tries feel less out of reach.
I expected a book focused on technology (smartphone, social media, etc) but the book goes broader than this. Although an obvious - and somehow easy - culprit, the attention economy is framed as one cause among other environmental ones and broader world trends. For example, one cause of our declining attention, he reckons, is the increase of our consumption of information, which predates the advent of digital technology. Other causes include our poor diet, chronic lack of sleep, or how we do not let our kids play. The description of these additional causes broadened my perspective on the topic.
Maybe the best I got from this book is an introduction to the work of writer and technology ethicist James Williams and his efforts to come up with new concepts and language to understand and challenge the damages of the attention economy. More about his work soon!