"Stolen Focus": Part Two
On Johann Hari's book Stolen Focus, and how the most extreme voices are dominating our public conversations.
In part one of this essay, I wrote about Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, and discussed how it motivated me to attempt my own mental uncluttering. This consisted largely of reducing how much of my life is lived online and increasing my ability to engage in deep-focus.
One of the most surprising effects of my digital detox is how much calmer I feel, especially about politics. Since cutting out YouTube entirely (and, with it, the videos of demagogues telling me why the other side is wrong both factually and morally), and since drastically reducing the number of news sites idly perused, I feel less prone to catastrophising about the “utter chaos” that might be unleashed if this piece of legislation passes, or if that activist group gets its way. The truth is, I didn’t even realise how stressed out I’d become by consuming alarmist viewpoints.
In Stolen Focus, Johann Hari is excellent at describing how failing attention spans interact with this culture of outrage, and why this is such a detriment to us as individuals and as a species. He writes that “when attention breaks down, problem-solving breaks down”:
“Solving big problems requires the sustained focus of many people over many years. Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them.”
The more “informed” I tried to be, and the more I consumed online media as a result, the less clearly I could see the problems we face, and the less optimistic I was about solving any of them. This, I decided as I began my self-experiment, had to change. I’d already written for myself an important principle that underpinned my mental uncluttering, which was to replace the ephemeral with the perennial. So I added a second principle:
Refuse to let the extremes dominate the conversation.
It’s worth asking, before we explore this idea in detail, how we’ve let our cultural conversations become reduced to stark binaries. How did we allow once-polyphonic dialogues to become cacophonies of the most antagonistic voices? Why are we giving up on the kind of nuance found only through measured introspection and productive debate?
Over the last decade, we’ve watched the continued deconstruction of legacy media and, from its rubble, the rise of independent journalism, video-essays, and podcasting. In the turf war between these factions and their devotees, it seems more urgent than ever that we reject the blind acceptance of any single source of information, and that we learn to sift through conflicting points of view to arrive at something like truth. One method of doing this is to actively seek out those with whom we disagree and give them a fair hearing. This is why I first began watching the occasional episode of The Ben Shapiro Show on YouTube, to understand the politics of a conservative with an orthodox faith who advocates for free-market capitalism – positions I don’t instinctively lean towards.
I also listened to The New York Times’ podcast The Daily, which examines news stories from an “establishment” viewpoint that frequently sits much further to the left than I do. The work of thinkers such as Sam Harris, Bari Weiss, Douglas Murray, and Andrew Sullivan – each of whom holds some number of beliefs wildly opposed to the beliefs of each of the others – helped me to look critically at the consensus opinions of my society. I stand by this in principal, but over time, something strange – and dark – happened.
As I went deeper into the stories that caused the most controversy and generated the most diverse array of responses, I read much more from those who were critical of the social critics I was already reading. I was eager not to be caught out accepting an opinion that was unfounded, and this meant reading increasingly esoteric and vitriolic critiques. The deeper into the weeds of any online dispute you go, the murkier things get.
Although the political landscape is a complex topographical map with myriad positions one can occupy along the hills of this terrain, there is also a simplistic spectrum erected and maintained by the two extremes that occupy either end. On one side are those who yell about how “the left” is going to cut the penises off all the little boys and legalise sex between a man and his pets; on the other side are people screaming about how “the right” wants to keep women locked in breeding farms and send the resulting children into schools with AK-47s.
There are, undoubtedly, those who do want to outlaw all abortions and even contraception, and those who think morality has nothing to say about any imaginable sexual kink. It’s not that they don’t exist, but that they exist the most for their opposition. And it is too easy for observers to these battles to become drawn in. In his book, Johann Hari describes this all too human impulse called “negativity bias”:
“On average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something positive and calm.”
There are sound evolutionary reasons for this bias, and it accounts for why we will stare at a car crash while barely noticing the field of flowers, or why we will refresh the page incessantly in anticipation of details about an unfolding tragedy while quickly losing interest in status updates about what a good day someone is having, or why we will watch hours of basically the same coverage of a terrorist attack yet struggle to watch for very long our friend’s videos of their child learning to walk. This bias is also baked into the core of our literature and cinema, which narrate countless variations of conflict between people and other people, or aliens, or dinosaurs, or natural disasters. It would bore most audiences to tears if they had to watch a film in which decent people are kind to each other, no one disagrees and no one suffers any struggles, the end.
It’s worth asking why pundits and politicians deliberately appeal to the worst angels of our evolved nature. Take a figure such as Ben Shapiro, who can be a thoughtful interlocutor given an open, long-form conversation; I’ve listened to him disagree quite productively and without anger with people like Sam Harris. What drives a public figure like this to descend into outraged rants about how insane the entirety of the left is because of something someone said on Twitter?
Negativity bias goes a long way in explaining why we spend more time with outraged voices than temperate ones, and it accounts for the incentives to put out negative content. It’s an unfortunate and obdurate fact that outrage can be packaged and delivered so efficiently online. A thoughtful, complex analysis is incredibly difficult to summarise in a title, while studies show that simply having one or more antagonistic words in a heading (words such as “destroys”, “hates”, or “obliterates”) drastically increases your reach. One major study even found that “for every word of moral outrage you add to a tweet, your retweet rate will go up by 20 percent on average”.
This is why business models and publishing schedules matter, and it goes back to what I wrote in part one about foregoing daily updates in favour of viewing world events on the scale of weeks, months, or even years. The historical view negates political and social myopia. When you are obliged to have something to say every day, your daily show becomes a glorified “reaction” channel. You don’t have the time to spot patterns and telling relations between topics; you are forced to react and to announce those reactions loudly. The struggle then becomes one of quickly reaching the public’s attention, before your ephemeral content has faded from relevance, and we’ve already seen the most efficient (though not the most ethical) way of doing this – bump up the anger, dial the outrage up to eleven, and get those negative keywords in your title.
This cluttering of attentional space by dogmatists and demagogues is happening in every sphere of public life. Take America, for example, and its ongoing civil war over abortion. In 2022, Pew Research Center found only 19 percent of people think abortion should be legal with absolutely no limits and 8 percent believe it should be illegal in every case, without exception. That means there’s a wide swathe of nuanced beliefs spread between the two extremes, and yet it’s those extremes that dictate our public conversations, turning them into arguments. An alien visiting Earth might scroll through Twitter and Facebook and watch the panel debates held on news channels, and come away thinking humans were limited to either locking up women who seek abortions or treating abortion as just a form of birth control.
Or take climate change. A broad consensus from the majority of scientists and researchers would be that climate change is a real problem and poses a significant threat in many complex ways, and that we as humans have many solutions already available to us, if we could just get ourselves together enough to implement some and invent others. But we are too often given a false choice between total denial of the problem and total denial that we have, or could have, any solutions. We either reject the science and go drive our 4x4 while eating a Big Mac, or live in straw huts with no electricity while eating uncooked tofu. The view through the Overton window is being crowded out by the extremes, and our view of the calmer, more rational middle is obscured.
However, if we refuse to allow the angriest, most alarmist voices to define the parameters of our conversations, we’ll be better able to tackle real problems, instead of constantly wrestling with bogeymen. When I purged my media diet of YouTube and daily news updates, I was left with long-form commentary on topics worth my attention. The more important a problem is, the more it deserves to be explored through something as long and deep as a book. In turning to thoughtful analysis and away from the scrum of reactive partisans, I became less angry about certain issues, less stressed out, more patient and even optimistic. I came to see that indignation is not synonymous with taking a problem seriously.
The bottom line is that all of this outrage is degrading our cultural conversations. It teaches us to prioritise instant reactions over lengthy consideration; to prefer the simple over the complex; to segregate rather than seek common ground. All of this immediacy and high-churn anger is eroding our ability to focus, and as Hari writes, “People who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions – and less likely to see clearly when they fail.”
In many ways, what I’ve described in both parts of this essay is only a beginning. For a start, to improve my focus and the quality of my cultural conversations, there are many more things I am doing and haven’t described here, and many things I could be doing and am not yet. More importantly, Johann Hari’s book is a whole cosmos of information compared to the tiny dot of starlight I’ve offered a glimpse of here; my hope is to encourage you to read Stolen Focus for yourself.
Finally – and this a key point that Hari stresses in the book – individual change should be our first recourse, but only the first. Giving up YouTube, or turning off notifications, or learning to meditate are the battles we fight to turn ourselves into the kind of people who can win the war – which is to say societally reforming the things we are individually resisting. Hari’s memorable description of this evokes a man pouring itching powder over another man and telling him that if he just learned to meditate then he wouldn’t itch so much. True enough, but if the itching powder went away...
As I say, Hari’s book does a wonderful job of exploring the territory of the fight we have on our hands. So, when it comes to beginnings, a great place to start rethinking our relationship to attention and the online world is by reading Stolen Focus. And maybe put down the phone.
• Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari (2022)