What is the consequence of never being bored? In the words of Sam Harris, we carry slot machines in our pocket today that makes this possible to distract ourselves, 24/7. I am hopeful when I see others speaking out about this, as awareness unlocks the ability to change. Below are my favorite excerpts from an article written by Johann Hari on our stolen attention.
Ten years later, Adam was lost. He had dropped out of school when he was 15, and he spent almost all his waking hours alternating blankly between screens – a blur of YouTube, WhatsApp and porn. (I’ve changed his name and some minor details to preserve his privacy.) He seemed to be whirring at the speed of Snapchat, and nothing still or serious could gain any traction in his mind.
Our ability to pay attention was cracking and breaking. I had just turned 40, and wherever my generation gathered, we would lament our lost capacity for concentration. I still read a lot of books, but with each year that passed, it felt more and more like running up a down escalator. Then one evening, as we lay on my sofa, each staring at our own ceaselessly shrieking screens, I looked at him and felt a low dread.
I went to Portland, Oregon, to interview Prof Joel Nigg, who is one of the leading experts in the world on children’s attention problems, and he told me we need to ask if we are now developing “an attentional pathogenic culture” – an environment in which sustained and deep focus is harder for all of us.
A small study of college students found they now only focus on any one task for 65 seconds. A different study of office workers found they only focus on average for three minutes. This isn’t happening because we all individually became weak-willed. Your focus didn’t collapse. It was stolen.
Prof Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained one to me. He said “your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. “We’re very, very single-minded.” We have “very limited cognitive capacity”. But we have fallen for an enormous delusion. The average teenager now believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time. When neuroscientists studied this, they found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually juggling. “They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task – [and] that comes with a cost.”
This is called the “switch-cost effect”. It means that if you check your texts while trying to work, you aren’t only losing the little bursts of time you spend looking at the texts themselves – you are also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards, which turns out to be a huge amount.
I realised that to heal my attention, it was not enough simply to strip out distractions. That makes you feel good at first – but then it creates a vacuum where all the noise was. I realised I had to fill the vacuum.
In Moscow, the former Google engineer James Williams – who has become the most important philosopher of attention in the western world – told me I had made a crucial mistake. Individual abstinence is “not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep certain effects at bay, but it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.” He said that our attention is being deeply altered by huge invasive forces in wider society. Saying the solution was to just adjust your own habits – to pledge to break up with your phone, say – was just “pushing it back on to the individual” he said, when “it’s really the environmental changes that will really make the difference”.
Nigg said it might help me grasp what’s happening if we compare our rising attention problems to our rising obesity rates. Fifty years ago there was very little obesity, but today it is endemic in the western world. This is not because we suddenly became greedy or self-indulgent. He said: “Obesity is not a medical epidemic – it’s a social epidemic. We have bad food, for example, and so people are getting fat.” The way we live changed dramatically – our food supply changed, and we built cities that are hard to walk or cycle around, and those changes in our environment led to changes in our bodies. We gained mass, en masse. Something similar, he said, might be happening with the changes in our attention.
I came to believe we need to respond to this incessant invasion of our attention at two levels. The first is individual. There are all sorts of changes we can make at a personal level that will protect our focus. I would say that by doing most of them, I have boosted my focus by about 20%. But we have to level with people. Those changes will only take you so far. At the moment it’s as though we are all having itching powder poured over us all day, and the people pouring the powder are saying: “You might want to learn to meditate. Then you wouldn’t scratch so much.” Meditation is a useful tool – but we actually need to stop the people who are pouring itching powder on us. We need to band together to take on the forces stealing our attention and take it back.
I think that given this uncertainty, we can’t wait for perfect evidence. We have to act based on a reasonable assessment of risk. If the people warning about the effects on our attention turn out to be wrong, and we still do what they suggest, what will be the cost? We will spend less time being harassed by our bosses, and we’ll be tracked and manipulated less by technology – along with lots of other improvements in our lives that are desirable in any case. But if they turn out to be right, and we don’t do what they say, what’s the cost? We will have – as the former Google engineer Tristan Harris told me – downgraded humanity, stripping us of our attention at the very time when we face big collective crises that require it more than ever.
Just as the feminist movement reclaimed women’s right to their own bodies (and still has to fight for it today), I believe we now need an attention movement to reclaim our minds. I believe we need to act urgently, because this may be like the climate crisis, or the obesity crisis – the longer we wait, the harder it will get. The more our attention degrades, the harder it will be to summon the personal and political energy to take on the forces stealing our focus. The first step it requires is a shift in our consciousness. We need to stop blaming ourselves, or making only demands for tiny tweaks from our employers and from tech companies. We own our own minds – and together, we can take them back from the forces that are stealing them.