Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | Attention! Big Tech is conspiring to purloin it and make hay

Deccan Chronicle.| Devi Kar

Published on: February 12, 2022 | Updated on: February 12, 2022

One of the features that makes the book valuable is that it has been exhaustively and excellently researched

Cover Image of the book 'Stolen Focus' by Johann Hari.

Cover Image of the book 'Stolen Focus' by Johann Hari.

The blurbs on the back cover of Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus — Why You Can’t Pay Attention grab your attention at once. Stephen Fry, Rutger Bregman, Hilary Clinton, Dr Rangan Chatterjee (of Doctor in the House fame) et al., have made superlative observations about the book. When you give in to your curiosity — which you are bound to do — and turn the pages of the book, you realise that it is not merely a self-help book to improve your attention span. It is much, much more. So, before you know it, you find yourself settling down with the book and reading it with growing interest and yes, alarm. You realise long before you reach the last chapter, that the world is facing a serious crisis of attention. And the reason why humans are unable to resolve problems of varying urgency is that they are unable to focus.

One of the features that makes the book valuable is that it has been exhaustively and excellently researched. The arguments are presented with solid evidence in a convincing manner and the many episodes that have been included in the book are narrated in an interesting manner. Although so much research has been done, Stolen Focus is not at all heavy reading and the reader feels a warm sense of inclusion right through. Of the many experts and scientists the author interviewed or consulted was James Williams who according to Hari is "the greatest attention expert in the world". It was Williams who told Hari about the three forms of attention — spotlight, starlight and daylight — and how all three are being stolen. Another attractive feature of the book is that audio clips of every person who has been quoted in the book has been posted on the website. This feature certainly enhances the reading experience.

At the outset, three reasons are given as to why it was worth accompanying the author on this journey. Firstly, we need to address our attention problems at an individual level before we can attend to any other problem in a sustained manner. Next, this attention problem is not only impacting society as a whole. A telling statement which is worth reflecting upon is that "people who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions". The third reason is simply to understand the attention crisis because nothing can be changed unless it is understood.

Two key concepts, ‘speed’ and ‘overload’ are presented graphically to understand the root of our distractions. The world has accelerated and is continuing to accelerate at a furious pace and a pause was forced by Covid-19.

In addition to the need to cope with speed, is the struggle to keep up with information overload. Just running your eyes through the chapter titles will indicate the resultant problems. The staggering range includes the rise of physical and mental exhaustion, the rise of stress, the collapse of sustained reading and the disruption of "mind-wandering" (the kind of roaming which generates creativity), our faulty response to the growing incidence of ADHD. The concluding chapter urgently calls for an Attention Rebellion and ends on a hopeful note by referring to groups that are already "fighting to improve attention".

Hari had added another dimension to James Williams’ three forms of attention mentioned earlier in this review — stadium light — where people are aware of one another and work collectively for common goals. The reader is also given some tips to improve attention such as giving up social media for a while, giving space to the mind to roam comfortably and freely and importantly, getting enough sleep.

Stolen Focus is a worthy successor to the author’s best-selling book Lost Connections.

About The Author

The writer is a veteran school educator based in Kolkata

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