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Thursday, September 08, 2022

Review: Stolen Focus

 I started reading Stolen Focus expecting a self-help guide to our "hyperactive hive mind" economy and personal lives. To my surprise, the book's much deeper than that. It would be so easy for Johann Hari to write about tips and tricks to focus yourself (and the book starts out this way --- the author detoxed himself by going to Provincetown without his smartphone, tablet, and laptop for multiple months without an internet connection), but at every point, Hari instead of going for the cheap, individual, easy fix, ties it to society and possible changes we can make in order to get back our focus.

The people in Silicon Valley did not want to design gadgets and websites that would dissolve people’s attention spans. They’re not the Joker, trying to sow chaos and make us dumb. They spend a lot of their own time meditating and doing yoga. They often ban their own kids from using the sites and gadgets they design, and send them instead to tech-free Montessori schools. But their business model can only succeed if they take steps to dominate the attention spans of the wider society. It’s not their goal, any more than ExxonMobil deliberately wants to melt the Arctic. But it’s an inescapable effect of their current business model. (kindle loc 1825)

An opinion that I've long held is that the mental health movement, including "mindfulness", is a hack to get you to deal with your stress better so that companies can pile on more stress on you. Hari has a name for this: "Cruel Optimism":

 He introduced me to an idea I hadn’t heard before—a concept named “cruel optimism.” This is when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture—like obesity, or depression, or addiction—and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution. It sounds optimistic, because you are telling them that the problem can be solved, and soon—but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail...Ronald talked to me about a bestselling book by a New York Times reporter that tells its readers: “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.” Stress is a feeling. Stress is a series of thoughts. If you just learn how to think differently—to quiet down your rattling thoughts—your stress will melt away. So you just need to learn to meditate. Your stress comes from a failure to be mindful. This message sings off the page with optimistic promise—but Ronald points out that in the real world, the top causes of stress in the U.S. have been identified by scientists at Stanford Graduate School of Business in a major study. They are “a lack of health insurance, the constant threat of lay-offs, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long working hours, low levels of organizational justice, and unrealistic demands.” If you don’t have health insurance and you have diabetes and you can’t afford insulin, or if you are forced to work sixty hours a week by a bullying boss, or if you are watching your colleagues get laid off one by one and you suspect with a sickening feeling that you will be next, your stress is not “something we impose on ourselves.” It is something imposed on you...The people who say stress is just a matter of changing your thoughts are, he says, talking “from a privileged position. It’s easy for them to say that.” He gave me the example of a company that was cutting back on providing healthcare to some people—and was, at the same time, congratulated by the same New York Times writer for providing meditation classes to its employees. You can see clearly how this is cruel. You tell somebody there’s a solution to their problem—just think differently about your stress and you’ll be fine!—and then leave them in a waking nightmare. We won’t give workers insulin, but we’ll give them classes on how to change their thinking. (Kindle loc 2328-2346)

 The author points out that both YouTube and Facebook's business models depend on triggering people to feel rage and other negative emotions, and the easiest way to do that is to distribute misinformation:

YouTube had recommended videos by Alex Jones and his website Infowars 15 billion times. Jones is a vicious conspiracy theorist who has claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was faked, and that the grieving parents are liars whose children never even existed. As a result, some of those parents have been inundated with death threats and have had to flee their homes. This is just one of many insane claims he has made. Tristan has said: “Let’s compare that—what is the aggregate traffic of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian? All that together is not close to fifteen billion views.” (kindle loc 2120)

So once again, this isn't something you as an individual can do something about --- it's something that society needs to regulate and change. Hari's proposals are pretty radical --- treating Facebook/Youtube as something like the BBC probably won't fly in American culture, but he points out that mass movements have succeeded in the past, despite extreme odds.

Hari describes the use of Ritalin and other stimulants in treating ADHD. He points out that once again, the pills are an easy individual solution that helps paper over deeper problems:

 In Norway, I went to interview the politician Inga Marte Thorkildsen, who started to investigate these questions—and wrote a book about it—after she was shaken by the case of one of her constituents. He was an eight-year-old boy whose teachers identified him as showing all the signs of hypervigilance. He wouldn’t sit still; he was running around all the time; he refused to do what he was told. So he was diagnosed with ADHD, and given stimulants. Not long afterward he was found dead, with a seventeen-centimeter gap in his skull. He had been murdered by his father, who, it emerged, had been violently abusing him all along. When I sat with her in Oslo, Inge told me: “Nobody did anything because they just said, ‘Wow, he has problems with attention,’ blah blah. They didn’t even talk to him during [the period when he was being given] medication.” (kindle loc 2751)

But wait, he dives in even deeper, pointing out that children today are being denied the most basic of human rights that adults had when they were kids, which is the ability go play outside without adult supervision. He discusses the free range kids movement, and discusses the Sudbury Valley school approach to learning, and how successful the Finnish people are about their schooling:

 The country that is often judged by international league tables to have the most successful schools in the world, Finland, is closer to these progressive models than anything we would recognize. Their children don’t go to school at all until they are seven years old—before then, they just play. Between the ages of seven and sixteen, kids arrive at school at 9 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m. They are given almost no homework, and they take almost no tests until they graduate from high school. Free play is at the beating heart of Finnish kids’ lives: by law, teachers have to give kids fifteen minutes of free play for every forty-five minutes of instruction. What’s the outcome? Only 0.1 percent of their kids are diagnosed with attention problems, and Finns are among the most literate, numerate, and happy people in the world. (kindle loc 4080)

Hari ends the book with a discussion of why humanity losing its focus is so important today:

 About three weeks or so into the fires, I was on the phone to a friend in Sydney when I heard a loud shrieking sound. It was the fire alarm in his apartment. All over the city, in offices and homes, these alarms had started to sound. This was because there was so much smoke in the air traveling in from the wildfires that the smoke alarms believed each individual building was on fire. This meant that one by one, many people in Sydney turned off their smoke alarms, and they sat in the silence and the smoke. I only realized why I found this so disturbing when I talked it over with my friend Bruno Giussani, a Swiss writer. He said to me that we were turning off the warning systems in our homes that are designed to protect us, because the bigger warning systems that are meant to protect us all—our society’s ability to focus on what scientists are telling us, and act on what they say—are not working. (kindle loc 4385)

The argument is compelling. In a complex, inter-related world with wicked hairy problems constantly staring us in the face, we have to regain our ability to focus and work on problems with optimism. The odds are long, and the systemic issues mean that no individual solution can work. But we have to try.

I started reading this book a skeptic and got steadily more impressed with each page turn. I can highly recommend this book as tying together many threads in a coherent, well thought-out way.

1 comment:

N said...

I am excited to read this book after your review. I am currently reading Lost Connections by the same author.