Stolen Focus | Johann Hari

Summary of: Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again
By: Johann Hari


In today’s rapidly evolving digital world, Stolen Focus by Johann Hari dives into the alarming decline of our attention spans and the factors that contribute to it. This book brings to light the impact of online platforms, social media addiction, and multitasking on our ability to concentrate and think deeply. Discover how the internet, Silicon Valley’s business model, and our own affinity for divisive content are robbing us of one of our most precious resources: our attention. Learn about how we can reclaim control over our focus amid the growing challenges posed by our modern era.

The Great Acceleration: How Technology Affects Our Attention Span

This article presents a study conducted in Denmark by Sune Lehmann, a professor at the Technical University of Denmark, to investigate the decline of attention span among the populace. Lehmann’s study reveals how modern technology causes an acceleration of information that the human brain has not evolved to handle. The article also shows how advancements in technology have affected our attention span over the years and suggests why it’s difficult for us to focus.

In recent times, it has been challenging for people to focus, which has led to decreased productivity despite being busier than ever. Sune Lehmann, while experiencing this problem himself, conducted a study that confirmed his suspicions of the effect of modern technology on our attention span. The study revealed that the amount of time that online conversation topics trend on social media before losing relevance has sharply declined in recent years. This, according to the study, is indicative of modern technology’s effect on human attention span.

In addition to analyzing online trends, Lehmann examined over a century’s worth of data on trending topics using Google Books. His intention was to find out if this phenomenon is exclusive to technology and the internet. The findings suggested that trending topics have always come and gone, but at an increasing pace with every decade.

However, while Lehmann’s study is indicative, it does not provide a complete picture of the problem. To unravel the issues that affect focus, we must consider the tremendous rise in the speed at which we receive information. The industrial revolution and technological advancements that followed it have accelerated the spread of news and information from days to almost real-time. Our information inputs have multiplied, with the average person ingesting the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information in 2004 alone.

The internet has further intensified this acceleration. As more information becomes available, it intrudes into our lives via notifications from our laptops and smartphones. Attention spans have not. Our brain cannot catch up with this speed due to its cognitive capacity, which has been the same for thousands of years.

In summary, the article sheds light on modern technology’s effect on our diminishing attention spans and why productivity has declined despite being busier. Unlike previous generations, we are dealing with an overload of information that our brains cannot process, causing distractions and loss of focus.

Social Media Addiction

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter seem designed to be addictive, and that’s exactly what they are. The Persuasive Technologies Lab at Stanford University developed the idea of using addictive behavioral psychology in computer code, and the result was an onslaught of design elements geared towards keeping users online. For example, the infinite scroll feature encourages users to remain on these platforms for extended periods of time, while the various like and share buttons provide rewards to incentivize continued usage. The result is a business model dependent on engagement, determined by how much time a user spends interacting with a product. The more time a user spends, the more advertising companies can sell and track users’ behavior, building profiles designed to target specific ads. Essentially, social media users are trading their attention for free platforms rather than their money.

The Power and Dark Side of Online Platforms

The potentials of online platforms are immense, ranging from connecting people to driving collective action. However, their algorithms, designed to exploit our attention and promote divisive content, are causing more harm than good. This phenomenon is exemplified in the story of Coletivo Papo Reto, a Facebook page run by Raull Santiago that has engaged many favela-dwellers to rally against their treatment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On the other hand, Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right campaign also relied heavily on Facebook, thereby revealing the power of online platforms in promoting fear-mongering campaigns. The algorithmic design of online platforms is responsible for this trend. By prioritizing content that triggers negative emotions, social media corrodes our focus and collective attention, elevating misinformation at the expense of objective information. Consequently, the ability to collectively focus on important issues like climate change dwindles, leaving us vulnerable to grave environmental and social dangers in the long run.

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