Do you feel as if you can’t get through a single task without distractions? Perhaps you are watching a movie and stop it to check social media or respond to a message. You aren’t alone; studies show that collectively our attention spans have been shrinking for decades. Many factors contribute to our fractured focus, including the processed foods we eat, which cause energy highs and lows, but the greatest culprit of all is technology.
In this episode of Big Tech, host Taylor Owen speaks with Johann Hari, the author of three New York Times bestsellers: Stolen Focus, Lost Connections and Chasing the Scream. Hari has been writing about depression, addiction and drugs for many years. Using that as background, Hari seeks to understand how social media has been changing our ability to deeply focus on important tasks. Hari argues that we must not think of this as a personal failing and charge the individual with finding a way out of this crisis, as we have done with obesity and drug addictions. Instead, society must change its relationship with technology so that we can regain our human ability to focus.
Technology has increased the speed at which we work and live; as we try to consume so much information, we begin to focus less and less on the details. Hari compares it to speed reading: “It’s surprisingly effective, but it always comes with a cost, even for professional speed readers, which is the faster you read, the less you understand, the less you remember, and the more you’re drawn to shallow and simplistic documents.” Couple that with the way platforms prioritize certain types of content and you have a recipe for disaster. “Everyone has experienced it. Human beings will stare longer at something that makes them angry and upset than they will at something that makes them feel good,” says Hari. What Hari worries is that rather than take collective action, society will put the onus on individuals much as in dealing with obesity it ignores the wider food supply network and instead sells fad diets and supplements to individuals. “And if you come to the attention crisis the same way [we responded] to the obesity crisis, we’ll get the same outcome, which is an absolute disaster.”