Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Our ability to focus is being systematically taken from us, argues Stolen Focus author Johann Hari. And the effects are prohibiting us from taking collective action on the climate emergency.
The ability to think deeply is a necessary tool in the fight for climate justice. After all, a crisis as complex as the climate emergency requires creative solutions that reimagine the systems that continuously harm the planet in pursuit for profit.
The good news is that setting aside time to reflect on our place in the world is not only an act of self-care, but crucial to our collective wellbeing. The bad news is that our ability to focus and engage in deep thought is being systematically stolen from us.
In his latest book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, author Johann Hari outlines how our inability to focus is far from a personal failing. Rather, it is the work of “huge invasive forces,” including big tech, which have corroded our concentration by taking aim at it, monetizing it, harvesting it, only to sell it on. Hari describes this as a crisis of attention, one that is directly comparable to the climate crisis. Both are built on extractivist ideologies that push our bodies and our environment beyond their limits. And both are existential in scale and urgency.
Below, Hari speaks with Atmos about the shared origins of the attention crisis and the climate emergency, and lays out the ways in which we can reclaim our focus to take collective action on reversing climate change.
Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
The title of your new book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, is so relatable to many of us who spend too much time doom scrolling on Instagram and TikTok. But what inspired you, personally, to write the book?
I noticed that my own ability to focus and pay attention was getting worse with each year that passed, and I was particularly worried about the young people in my life. At first I thought: It’s obvious why you can’t pay attention—you just aren’t strong enough, you’re lacking in willpower.
But then I went on a big journey all over the world, from Moscow to Miami to Melbourne, to interview over 200 leading experts in attention and focus. I learned that there’s scientific evidence that there are 12 factors that can either make your attention better or worse. And loads of those factors have been on the rise in recent years. They range quite widely, from the food we eat to the air we breathe to some, but not all, aspects of our technology. After learning about all this scientific evidence, I realized that our attention hasn’t collapsed. Rather, our attention has been stolen from us by a handful of very big forces, which in many cases overlap with the climate crisis and in many ways have similar dynamics. They’re both about pushing people beyond their limits and pushing the natural world beyond its limits.
Crucially, though, once we understand how these 12 factors impact our ability to pay attention, we can collectively begin to get it back.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about extractivism in the context of attention. Building on that line of thought, you argue in Stolen Focus that the theft of our attention is a crisis that’s comparable to the climate crisis. I wonder whether you can talk a little bit more about the ways in which the causes and effects of both the crisis of attention and the climate crisis are similar? And going further, how might one feed the other?
There’s a guy called Dr. James Williams who worked at the heart of Google and was horrified and sick with guilt at what they and the rest of Silicon Valley were doing to our attention. He quit and has since become the most important philosopher of attention in the world. And while he argues that there’s three layers of attention, I would argue there’s a fourth layer which helps us to think about the attention crisis in relation to climate change.
The first layer is what he calls your spotlight. That’s your ability to filter out all the noise around you and achieve an immediate task. Mostly when we think about attention problems, we think about that layer. But actually, although disruptions to that layer is problematic, it’s also the least important layer. The next level up is what he calls your starlight, and that’s about your ability to achieve a longer-term goal—like write a book, run a campaign, be a good parent or whatever it might be. The next level up is your daylight, and that’s your ability to figure out what your long-term goals are. How do you know what book you want to write? How do you know you want to run a campaign? How do you know what it means to be a good parent? To know these things, you have to have periods of rest and reflection and deep thought. And if you’re constantly jammed up and unable to stop and think, you don’t get that. Then, I’d argue there’s a fourth layer, which is what I call our stadium lights. These refer to our ability to formulate and achieve long-term collective goals; to see each other, to see the truth, to think clearly as a society, which is necessary to combat a crisis as nuanced and intersectional as the climate crisis.
It’s also worth saying that I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, interviewing people who designed key aspects of the world in which we now live. And to understand how our attention crisis is affecting the climate debate, I had to kind of step back for a second to absorb what these people were telling me. If you open Facebook, TikTok, Twitter or Instagram, those companies immediately make money from you in two ways. The first is your exposure to advertising. Everyone understands that. The second is much more important. Everything you ever say on these apps, any preference you express in any way, is scanned and sorted by their artificial intelligence algorithms to figure out who you are. The longer you scroll, the more money they make. Every time you close the app, their revenue stream disappears.
Now, this ends up having a political effect. When you get a combination of algorithms designed to maximize engagement and you pair that with negativity bias, the fact that we stare longer at things that make us angry and upset than things that make us feel good, you end up with a horrendous result. Bolsonaro is a good example of this. Bolsonaro was a washed-up, forgotten far-right senator until the YouTube algorithm started to pick him up. He began to make more and more grotesque statements, which the algorithms picked up and pumped up. His own supporters saw how clearly his support was tied to social media algorithms because the night he won, his supporters chanted outside his election rally: Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.
So, it’s not a coincidence we’re having the biggest crisis in democracy all over the world since the 1930s at the same time as we’re having this crisis of attention. It’s not the only reason of course, but it’s a significant one.
“It’s not a coincidence we’re having the biggest crisis in democracy all over the world since the 1930s at the same time as we’re having this crisis of attention.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. These business models in big tech are, like you say, built on polarization, on fragmentation, on outrage. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how necessary it is for us to retain focus on a cause in order to build movements. How does the attention economy hinder us from taking collective action on crises like the climate crisis?
Think about anything you’ve ever achieved in your life. What you’re proud of achieving most likely required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention.
When your ability to focus breaks down, your ability to solve problems breaks down; your ability to achieve your goals breaks down; you become much less effective. There’s a lot of evidence to support this. For example, if you’re interrupted by something as simple as a text message, it takes on average 23 minutes to get back to the level of focus you had before you were interrupted. Most of us never get 23 minutes without being interrupted. So we’re constantly operating at a lower cognitive capacity.
That juggling of tasks we’re doing all the time comes at a really big cost. The fancy technical term for it is the switch cost effect. When you try to do more than one thing at a time, you do everything you are trying to do much less competently. This is why we are living in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of being constantly interrupted. And if we’re being cognitively degraded, quite apart from the mechanism of polarization, we’re also just less effective. We make more mistakes; we remember less of what you do; we’re much less creative. And we can see that in activism: people are being burned out more quickly.
There’s also an argument to say that, in many ways, we’ve never been more connected with one another. And that connectivity is also a necessary component to organizing. But from your experience, how is our increasing reliance on social media and on these algorithms working against us when it comes to movement building in the climate space?
“Both the attention crisis and the climate crisis are thematically linked in that they’re both about pushing us beyond limits that we can tolerate.”
The important thing to stress is that I’m pro-tech and I’m pro-social media. I want technology that works for us, not technology that works against us. At the moment, we have technology that works to benefit a tiny handful of billionaires at the expense of the attention of the rest of us.
As many people at the heart of Silicon Valley said to me, we need to ban the business model that is designed to secretly surveil us in order to find weaknesses in our attention, hack them, in order to sell our focus to the highest bidder. Just ban it. Then, social media companies will be forced to move to other business models, which exist in the world already but which are not premised on hacking and invading your attention. That’s easily achievable, humans have taken on bigger challenges than that.
There’s another way this relates to climate, which is worth thinking about. Both the attention crisis and the climate crisis are thematically linked in that they’re both about pushing us beyond limits that we can tolerate. The climate crisis is in part caused by us putting far too many warming gasses into the atmosphere, pushing us beyond limits which are tolerable for human, plant, and animal life. It has already led to catastrophes and is risking even bigger catastrophes.
If you think about attention, a very similar dynamic is playing out. We are being pushed beyond the limits of what we can tolerate. Think about something as simple as sleep: Every human knows that we need to sleep, and yet we sleep on average 20% less than people did a century ago. Children sleep 85 minutes less than they did in 1945. And that has catastrophic effects on your attention, partly because the whole time you’re awake, your brain is building up something called metabolic waste. But when you go to sleep, a watery fluid washes through your brain and carries that brain cell waste out of your brain and down into your kidneys and eventually out of your body. If you don’t get eight hours of sleep, your brain does not get the opportunity to clean itself properly, and you feel, quite literally, clogged up.
Dr. Charles Czeisler, who’s the leading expert on sleep in the world, said to me, “If we did go back to sleeping as much as we need to, as much as we did a century ago, then that would cause a huge recession as people would consume an hour less every day.” In other words: If our physical needs were met, it would cause an economic crisis.
It’s very revealing that we live in a system that is built on the negligence of one of our most basic physical needs—it’s not like sleep is some new fancy invention or luxury. And in a similar way, it’s revealing that this same system is pushing us beyond the natural limits that our planet can tolerate. One of the underlying dynamics is an economy built entirely around the pursuit of profit at the expense of all other human goals and desires. Sure, there needs to be some market component to the economy, but it has to exist within the limits of what the environment can tolerate.
Would you describe the systematic theft of our attention as an existential crisis? And if so, why is that?
Attention is our superpower as a species. And losing our superpower as we face our biggest collective challenge—the climate crisis—is not going to work well for us. That’s why it’s so important to get our attention back.
I’m actually optimistic that we can get our attention back. We need to stop blaming ourselves and start tackling the forces that are doing this to us. It requires a shift in psychology. It requires a new business model. We are not medieval peasants begging at the court of King Zuckerberg for a few more crumbs of attention from his table. We are the free citizens; we own our minds and we can take them back if we want to. I’d argue that, to deal with the climate crisis, we’re going to have to.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for purposes of length and clarity.