"Stolen Focus": Part One
On Johann Hari's book Stolen Focus, and how a digital detox can clear up mental clutter.
Art Of Conversation has always rejected the very online concept of “trends”, those cultural moments that arise quickly, live briefly, and die leaving almost no echo behind. These are the hashtags that trend for half a day, or the hit Netflix series that everyone insists you must watch – until a week has passed and the next big show is the must-watch. Try getting anyone who saw Tiger King to tell you anything about it now; we’ve forgotten everything but the vague memory of the world going into lockdown and watching a show about a zoo-keeper with a mullet. Here at Art Of Conversation, I prefer to reflect on those things that are timeless rather than timely.
I found myself thinking about this commitment to the evergreen while reading Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. I was prompted to pick it up after deciding to finally do something about my ability (rather, my inability) to focus. Things I used to give long stretches of attention to were being drowned out by the proliferation of things demanding my attention online. Reading on paper was being replaced by reading on a screen; books were succumbing to articles, then to blogs, then to tweets and comments; slow, careful reading was becoming more difficult, and skimming took its place.
My inability to sit still and read became so pronounced that I doubted my own memories of reading whole novels in single sittings. Now, I became twitchy given just a few minutes of inactivity, reaching for my phone the moment writing became difficult or I had to wait for the coffee maker to produce its magical brew. I was late to the iPhone game, and I noticed that my levels of daily and hourly anxiety had ballooned in direct correlation with the five-year period of my owning a smartphone. In my twenties, I never thought of myself as an anxious person; since becoming a highly online individual, my undistracted self seems to have become quite irritable.
As I read Hari’s book, he convinced me that the problem (as with the solution) lies beyond my individual experience. Hari offers a compelling set of data that demonstrates how we are suffering societally from this loss of attention. Scientists across Europe, led by Professor Sune Lehmann, undertook a massive analysis of data sets, including topics trending on Twitter and the turnover rate in search terms on Google. Then they used software to analyse a range of books written between 1880 and today, looking for how often particular keywords came up in the text; the resulting graph matched the online trend. “With each decade that passed, for more than 130 years, topics have come and gone faster and faster.” As Professor Lehmann told Hari:
“What we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions. [...] Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth. Depth connected to your work in relationships also takes time. [...] It takes attention. All of these things that require depth are suffering. It’s pulling us more and more up onto the surface.”
Living up on the surface, or, in the memorable phrase of Sven Birkerts, “living in the shallows of what it means to be human”. In direct contrast to this, I could recall brief periods when the noise of technology was hushed – sometimes deliberately, as during silent meditation retreats, sometimes imposed on me, as when my home internet mysteriously crashed for two days – and through those windows of calm, I glimpsed a deeper, more rewarding, way of being in the world. So I asked myself: could life be more like that on a daily basis? Did I have to remain distracted and unhappy? What would it cost me, and what could I gain?
Early in Stolen Focus, Hari writes about a three-month digital detox he took in Provincetown, USA. While there, he cut himself off entirely from all forms of online activity – no smartphones, no computer with a modem of wi-fi, no social media, no email, not even the ability to take a selfie, except with those old-fashioned things our parents used to call cameras. This might seem extreme to many people, but it’s jarring to realise that for a present-day time-traveller to experience a total worldwide absence of the internet, they’d only have to go back forty years – half of a single lifetime.
Hari’s digital asceticism meant that his media diet went suddenly from binge to purge. “Normally,” he writes, “I follow the news every hour or so, getting a constant drip-feed of anxiety-provoking factoids and trying to smush it together into some kind of sense.” In Provincetown, he established a new habit:
“Every morning, I would buy three newspapers and sit down to read them – and then I wouldn’t know what happened in the news until the next day. Instead of a constant blast running all through my waking life, I got one in-depth, curated guide to what happened, and then I could turn my attention to other things. [...] My normal mode of consuming news, I realised, induced panic; this new style induced perspective.”
I began reconsidering my own news consumption. There were the daily and hourly updates on UK news, followed by the articles about US news, which increasingly impacts events here in the UK, and then there were all the pieces of commentary, the op-eds and the YouTube videos, and, of course, I felt I had to consult a variety of sources to ensure some kind of balance between the right and the left, between legacy media and new media. In addition to all of that, there was book news to follow, which picked up a great amount of steam when Salman Rushdie was attacked, or Hanif Kureishi suffered a fall, or an author died. Events like these meant that book news took on the cycle of refresh, read the latest update, refresh, latest update, refresh...
It felt like a full-time job, and it was often just as exhausting. So I invented a new motto for myself, a guideline for improving the quality of my media diet:
Replace the ephemeral with the perennial.
I blocked YouTube on my devices, and I stopped checking the news sites. Instead, I re-subscribed to the TLS (a subscription I’d previously cancelled because I didn’t have time to read it), which gave me weekly updates on culture, and I curated a list of about seven podcasts that each deliver one episode a week – either a round-up of the biggest events or a deep-dive into one particular topic. If an issue wasn’t relevant just seven days after its breaking, then it was never that important at all. One week isn’t that big a wait, but it provided an instant quality filter, so that I was no longer sacrificing mental bandwidth to things that would fade in a day or two.
As the weeks went by, there were moments in conversation when I had no knowledge of a specific event my friend had brought up. But in every one of those cases, one of two things happened: we moved past it and onto something we both had thoughts on, or my friend brought me up to speed on the matter, flagging it as something worth my giving attention. I’m already noticing the depth of these conversations growing deeper, and this seems to be the result of the breadth of conversation narrowing. It’s like the difference between being widely-read and being well-read: widely-read is fine for giving you a little to say to everyone at a dinner party; well-read means having truly deep conversations, with one or two of the guests, the kind of dialogue that stays with you, that changes you, that takes you on a journey into your knowledge and ignorance to discover new, worthwhile things. Journeys like these are much easier to make when you ditch the baggage of daily updates.
If my effort to give more time to evergreen news items was a question of deep-focus, then the ephemeral news bulletins and updates cluttering my attention were simply interruptions to that focus. I wondered where else in my life there may be distractions pulling me out of depth and towards the surface, distractions that I could reduce or eradicate to improve my attention. Almost without exception, those things that I discovered pinging, ringing, and otherwise noisily distracting me – whether I was writing, reading, or having a conversation – originated with the internet.
There were notifications from WhatsApp group messages, from my email app, from the meditation app I used randomly reminding me to focus (oh, the wretched irony), and from my phone itself letting me know there was an update I could download. There were the live feeds on news sites I routinely checked, feeds that auto-updated every two minutes but that could also be refreshed manually by “pulling down” on the page like a slot-machine, each forced refresh offering the tantalising possibility of a bonus pay-out in some remarkable development in the story, or at least a few pennies of informational tidbits, but most often just more of the same.
Given the fact that all of these disruptions are designed to deliver as much instant gratification as possible and to deliver it as seamlessly as possible, with increasingly less effort required on my part, how could an activity like sitting still at my desk to write, or reading a whole chapter of a book, hold out against them?
I figured that the solution was to jump into the deep end and swim from there to a comfortable place where I could just about touch the bottom. I used Apple’s Screen Time function to ban from my phone every app – including “basic” web access – and I had my wife set the passcode so when my willpower failed, I couldn’t access those attractive, distracting apps. For the first few weeks, I noticed a strange phenomenon: although my smartphone only had the functionality to make and take phone calls, I kept turning to the damned thing every fifteen or so minutes, and reached for it at every transitional moment such as getting up from my desk or leaving a room. I was desperate, it turned out, for a distraction.
In the beginning of my experiment, I was a lot like Hari when, as he describes in his book, he started taking a yoga class and spent an hour at a time moving his body slowly and paying close attention to it. “At first,” he writes, “I found it extraordinarily boring, and I tried to draw [the instructor] into arguing about politics or philosophy.” However:
“He would always gently guide me back to trying to move into some weird pretzel shape I had never tried before. By the end of the summer, I was able to be silent for an hour, and to stand on my head.”
I told myself that if I too could quiet the distractions and learn, over time, to go longer and longer without needing instant and easy stimulation, then perhaps I would be able to focus for an hour (or, just imagine, even longer!) and, in terms of intellectual and creative stamina, be able to stand on my head. A little over a month into this experiment, my intuition was turning out to be correct. The first draft of this essay up to this sentence was written (by hand, rather than on a screen) in about a third of the time it would have taken me last year, and not one of these words was interrupted by my phone. A very minor miracle, but one that I’m incredibly grateful for.
I have been astonished not only with the force of the effects that this self-experimentation has had, but also with the rapidity of their onset. It was only three weeks after beginning this mental uncluttering that I noticed one of the most surprising results of this project. As I’ve spent time reflecting on this unexpected phenomenon, I’ve realised two things: first, that it is attainable independent of the digital detox I’ve undertaken, and so it should be of value even to those who wish to cling to their phones; and, second, that it merits more space and attention than I can give it at the end of this essay.
So, in part two, I’ll unpack this wonderfully unanticipated experience, which will take us through the outrage machines in the new media, the demagoguery of both sides of the abortion debate (as well as the false notion that there are only two sides), and the silencing of the “exhausted majority”.
• Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari (2022)
• The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts (1994)