Johann Hari has recently spotlighted the attention crisis. (Bravo. My choir says amen.) However, he stresses the need for environmental change to save us. I see this is a form of toolbox fallacy – an excuse that will obstruct the greatest sustainable remedy: people recognizing and manifesting their individual power to fight back. I am not against against institutional reform – go for it. Where shall I aim my arrow as your ally? But for the love of god, 90% of the problem can be relieved by personal awareness and willpower. If we can’t believe deeply in that potential, and emphasize it, and cultivate it, we are infantilizing humanity and undermining the idea of true individual sovereignty – the original American dream. Yes, the most vulnerable among us need environmental support. But what of the rest of us? The majority? Big-bad-wolf-syndrome will only deepen a sense of helplessness and animosity toward exaggerated oppression – and stunt deeper rehabilitation.
(Title image: Office Space, 1999. In this metaphor, you are the man with the bat. The printer on the ground is everything that obstructs your clear mind. Swing away…)
“We are not medieval peasants begging at the court of King Zuckerberg for a few little crumbs of attention from his table. We are the free citizens of democracies.”
– Johan Hari
I am not defending predatory technology. I am so anti-Meta, I refuse any of its platforms or services. Mark Zuckerberg stands at the edge of a deep fucking moat surrounding the castle that is my life. Why, Johann, are you placing a figurative crown on his head and begging for crumbs? If bread is a metaphor for attention, I have cupboards full… and King Mark has absolutely zero to do with this abundant supply.
Credit Where It’s Due
This is not a dunk on Johann. He is inspirational. I first encountered him years ago speaking with Sam Harris about addiction and the opioid crisis. I trust he is sincere and truly wishes to maximize wellbeing for humanity.
Second, I acknowledge his spotlighting this problem – he dubs “The Attention Crisis”. It’s very real and near and dear topic, as far as I’m concerned. I would NOT be spurred write this, had he not recognized the attention crisis, and devoted ungodly amounts of time to studying it, travelling the world to speak with experts about it, compiling his thoughts in a book, and finally spreading the word in public discourse. Immense respect.
Third, I do believe institutional oppression is a real phenomenon.
It is dangerous and myopic to overemphasize an “evil environment” as the root of this particular crisis. Just as we should not fix obesity by pulling cheeseburgers out of people’s hands via cheeseburger tax, we should not fix the attention crisis primarily by raising pitchforks and anger at big tech and government. Shouting at the rain? Shoveling shit against the tide? I can’t decide which is most apt. The primary way to resolve this is to do exactly what Johann did when he started exploring this topic, and we can all do too: recognize the problem, understand it’s implications on you, find a way to unplug, reflect, and introduce lasting change into your life. Thoreau would be proud.
This is obviously much easier said than done. But one thing is certain, this option is accessible to anyone, immediately. Changing and regulating the attention economy on the other hand, while I am remotely supportive but still believe we are stuck on root cause analysis, is a decades long affair, at best.
Big Bad Wolf Syndrome – You Are Not A Victim
Speaking of danger, it is dangerous for any human being, to deeply internalize their victimhood. Humanity’s biggest plight might be the difficulty in recognizing the cause and effect of our lives, and make choices more deliberately. Recognizing one’s complicity in their own harm. I can see 20-year-old Hunter S Thompson nodding affirmatively…
“A man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. ”
– Hunter S Thompson
How then, can one take matters into their own hands? I can only offer a place to start. I fully realize the enormous undertaking in activating such a light switch in peoples’ minds, and I am not purporting to possess magical insight toward fostering this. But my conviction is that it’s possible, and this lives in the marrow of my bones. I intend to devote myself to trying. More to come.
A short piece of advice, for starters: Kill your fucking smartphone. Do you really need youtube, social media, news, twitter, netflix, etc etc etc, in your pocket, available at all times? notifications turned on for everything? Or can those things wait until you’re home sitting down? Sit with this. If you get that far, new possibilities will soon be obvious. Put this on your smartphone instead. (no affiliation, just a big fan)
I Commit To Reading Stolen Focus
(Update 3/5/22 – I did read the book. See here)
I have not read Johann’s book yet. To sound-off any further would be remiss. This response is based entirely on his Atlantic article, Podcast with Ezra Klein, and Twitter feed. In all of these places, I found emphasis on institutional change and responsibility of the individual understated. As I mentioned, I am much more a fan and ally than I am a critic, and I promise to understand all of the nuance of his thesis.
Potential differences in opinion aside, thank you Johann for elevating the problem.