First Draft
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First Draft

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“Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention — and how to think deeply again”

Notes: Lots of notes on this book. One of my goals for 2023 is to incorporate more scientific literature to my reading in addition to literature and poetry and this book reaffirms why that is important to do.

This book will help improve, and ultimately save, many lives. The author is in a similar age group to myself and it is truly incredible to read a young writer write so eloquently and reframing legacy issues in terms that are relevant to our digital environment in 2022 — soon to be 2023.

Hari lists many causes both individual and macro-societal that have coincided and in some cases, facilitated, our diminishing ability to pay attention for durations greater than 3-five minutes of purely intensive focus. Three of the primary reasons offered are stress, sleep and money. These factors over layered on top of digital technologies that have successfully integrated with both behavioral and evolutionary psychology to condition ourselves to be in a constant state of ‘alert’ and hyper-vigilance.

One interesting effect of these dynamics is that the sheer magnitude of sources available for information is asymmetric, i.e., both attention and distraction are available in unlimited quantities everywhere and anywhere from within the pocket of your phone. Hari notes that many of the social media company algorithms are designed, whether intentionally or not, to promote videos that keeps users ‘engaged’ rather than informed…this has resulted in several severe psychological side effects that have occurred alongside an unprecedented increase in ADHD diagnoses— something Hari discusses with several medical professionals in order to suss out whether the technology is facilitating the increase in ADHD or whether we are categorizing and diagnosing at higher raters because of growing pressure to perform…Hari’s general thesis seems to be that moderating/elminating as much of our technology as possible during certain times — mornings and evenings / mindless scrolling at your phone or desk, and opening multiple browsers to research and dive deeper before finishing reading the book/paper in front of you. This book really is a good roadmap for the restoration of our attention in a world and enviornment seemingly designed to sap us of them. I think it would make a great holiday gift for anyone searching for more meaningful remedies for feeling tired, lost and overwhelmed.

Side note: One summer I made a trip with friends to Provincetown, MA, where Hari secluded himself in order to ‘disconnect’ from technology, write about it, and find himself, and without a doubt it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

Average attention span:

“…the scientists involved put tracking software on their computers and monitored what they did in a typical day. They discovered that, on average, a student would switch tasks once every sixty-five seconds. If you’re an adult and tempted to feel superior hold off. A different study by Gloria Mark, a professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine — who I interviewed — observed on average how long an adult working in an office stays on one task. It was three minutes,” (10).

Rise in obesity — linked to dietary changes and ultra processed foods — we make worse health decisions when over stressed and tired — everything about the modern technological environment and record inequality in terms of income and cost of housing is designed almost perfectly to leave you feeling tired and over stressed.

[Professor Joel Nigg] “…childrens attention problems. He 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…we need to ask if we are now developing ‘an attentional pathogenic culture,” (11).

— Interesting observation is that Hari really takes to task the “Get off my lawn” generation who think that issues such as obesity are really just a matter of “will power,” most of that generation was never inundated the way contemporary society is and so even though someone may have a high degree of will power that will only help at the individual level — for just that one or few people who can block out all distractions however drawing on that reservoir of personal strength does nothing to help resolve and solve the larger and much more dynamic structural issues that continue to let this crisis build unabated. Structural problems require structural solutions, not ones built around individualistic accomplishments. Additionally, our focus should be on measuring the continued effects of diminishing attention and developing policies to reduce and mitigate, Hari draws on the citizenry refutation of lead in water pipes and home walls as an example of the harms of chemicals being studied, their detrimental effects documented, and the dissimination of this information out which helped mobilize people to rally around the issue. Similarly, the mental and/or physical impact of technology and social media is relatively new, long term studies have yet even been able to be conducted…and therefore we need to increase the level of monitoring and study in order to develop adequate policies instead of the current state of ‘self-regulation’ through ‘de-regulation.’

The concept of multitasking originated with dual parallel processing systems in computers and was analogized to humans, however Hari details how brains have an upper band of ‘processing capability,’ and therefore there is really no such things as ‘twice at once’ but really only switching fast back and forth — which has been shown to decrease production in both activities over time (theorized that over time exhaustion occurs from the switching!).

“…when people think they’re doing several things at once, they’re actually — as Earl explained — ‘juggling.’ They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers over it 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,” (38).

Description: “In the United States, teenagers can focus on one task for only sixty-five seconds at a time, and office workers average only three minutes. Like so many of us, Johann Hari was finding that constantly switching from device to device and tab to tab was a diminishing and depressing way to live. He tried all sorts of self-help solutions — even abandoning his phone for three months — but nothing seemed to work. So Hari went on an epic journey across the world to interview the leading experts on human attention — and he discovered that everything we think we know about this crisis is wrong.

We think our inability to focus is a personal failure to exert enough willpower over our devices. The truth is even more disturbing: our focus has been stolen by powerful external forces that have left us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit. Hari found that there are twelve deep causes of this crisis, from the decline of mind-wandering to rising pollution, all of which have robbed some of our attention. In Stolen Focus, he introduces readers to Silicon Valley dissidents who learned to hack human attention, and veterinarians who diagnose dogs with ADHD. He explores a favela in Rio de Janeiro where everyone lost their attention in a particularly surreal way, and an office in New Zealand that discovered a remarkable technique to restore workers’ productivity.

Crucially, Hari learned how we can reclaim our focus — as individuals, and as a society — if we are determined to fight for it. Stolen Focus will transform the debate about attention and finally show us how to get it back.”

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