Book review: Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

I recently read Stolen Focus after it was recommended via the local LUG’s chatroom. I’ve been exploring this theme recently with Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, along with Jon Haidt’s research into the alarming (alleged) impacts of smartphones and social media on youth mental health. It’s fair to say I came into Hari’s more recent book with the attitude “it’s gotta be the phones, man”.

It really is a fantastically researched piece. Stolen Focus is chockers with choice quotes from attention-adjacent researchers that Hari clearly went to enormous effort to locate and interview. By comparison, Newport writes well but his anecdotal style feels like an extended blog post. The book has a very wide remit; it tries to distance itself from self-help titles by looking at broader societal problems that affect our ability to concentrate, many of which you certainly can’t self-help your way out of.

He hooks you from the start with a story about his godson and another about his own three-month digital detox. Throughout the first half his reflections on the detox are cleverly woven into the insights from his research. I nodded along at his familiar observations, raised eyebrows at his notes about sleep, and grimaced in sympathy with his candid recollections of addictive behaviour. It’s simply good writing.

However there is an exception to my enthusiasm. Chapters 7 “The Rise of Cruel Optimism” and 8 “The First Glimpses of the Deeper Solution” address the question of what to do about the phones, and I’m sorry to report that it goes completely off the rails. This interlude is full of non sequiturs and strange analogies that probably scan okay if you’re disposed to the same conclusions as Hari, but if you needed convincing then it falls well short. Just as abruptly as these chapters arrive, Hari switches back to sharing his research and everything is pretty reasonable for the second half. It’s a wild ride.

To explain what I mean, this is the basic overall narrative:

  1. Why is everyone looking at their dang phones all the time?
  2. Oh I guess that’s me too. Let’s try a long detox and see what it’s like.
  3. That was amazing but it didn’t stick. Am I a bad person?
  4. We can relax everyone! Our phone addiction was Big Tech’s fault all along!
  5. We need to regulate or nationalise Big Tech urgently.
  6. Also we need a UBI, 4-day work week, reduced pollution, improved psychiatric care, more sleep, free range kids, and if we stop pursuing infinite economic growth maybe we’ll be able to think clearly enough to fix global warming.

Yeah so it gets a bit grandiose towards the end but it’s pleasantly written so I’ll allow it.

The first real sin of Stolen Focus is that it discusses lots of interesting phenomena without making any effort to rank these by their level of impact or by how much agency we have to do something about them. He attempts to rouse us with inspiring stories of feminism and the labour movement but frankly it doesn’t work. It is completely disspiriting and disempowering to blame so many different causes that are intractable in their own ways, then cheerfully encourage us to take on big problems in the manner of Greenpeace. He ends with an example of people getting arrested on purpose. I suppose it’s inspirational but it feels like at some point we’ve become unmoored from what started as a normal conversation about people spending too much time on Twitter.

For my money: it’s gotta be the phones, man. There are a lot of problems in the world but when I look at my own behaviour and that of people around me, it’s the tech and social media that’s shattering most of the attention while also being one of the things most under our control. Hari does give individualistic measures occasional credit but it’s clearly not his preferred stance. He revealed that after his three months offline, some four months later he was back on his phone four hours a day. If that’s your outcome then I think you’ve got to accept a little bit of personal responsibility. I’m quite sure Hari read Digital Minimalism—if he’d followed the detox instructions there then maybe he would have had the same success as many of Newport’s followers.

The book’s second sin is its analysis of what to do about phones and social media is completely underwhelming. I disagree with what the problem is, disagree with the rhetoric employed, and disagree that the solutions proposed will actually help. My impression is that Hari spent a lot of time with his revered ex-Big Tech whistleblowers, who in their rush to mea culpa have somewhat overestimated their own depravity. The two chapters feel like they were back-calculated from the overall vibe of the book: that the general solution to improving focus is lobbying the government.

If you follow along in this section it would seem that the world consists of two kinds of people:

  1. Hapless well-meaning citizens who have been entranced by evil Big Tech and need the government to step in to help;
  2. A handful of privileged libertarians who uniquely have the time and energy to switch off evil Big Tech’s intrusions.

This quote captures the sentiment well:

One day Aza [Raskin] said to me: “The fundamental thing is that no one likes the way they are spending time or making decisions with the way technology currently is. …”

This is plainly bollocks. Many people enjoy using technology the way it is. And who are you or I to say that they’re wrong? If you start with this sort of assumption then you end up saying one wrong thing after another and I think that’s what’s happened here.

I have a particular circle of friends—happy and well-adjusted, who catch up face-to-face all the time—who are also consummate lovers of social media. When the new app BeReal appeared most of them leapt at the opportunity to have additional notifications and surveillance capitalism on their phones, simply because it was a fun thing to do with their friends1. They don’t need help or fixing, least of all from me or the Australian government.

If an adult spends four hours a night watching YouTube and following its recommendations, who am I to say that this is bad2? It would be elitist on two fronts—firstly by implying that there’s something objectively “better” this person should be doing with their time, secondly by restricting what may be one the few forms of entertainment available for a poor person who hasn’t much else except a smartphone and some data.

As a second example I present Mastodon3 which is a social network technology inspired directly by Twitter. Yes, Twitter, one of the worst attention sinks so far invented: a 24/7 party of dopamine, outrage and virtue signalling, with a demonstrated ability to turn its users’ brains into glue4. Open source hackers looked at Twitter and decided that its biggest problems were the central servers run by capitalists and its susceptibility to overbearing regulation, while accepting the overall idea as basically okay.

To be fair to Mastodon it has some tweaks that turn down the heat: content warnings, no quote tweets, and longer posts by default. However if you spend much time on the network you quickly find the same posturing, subtooting and dunking, plus the uniquely Mastodonian drama of which instances are blocking or muting which. If Twitter is the “hellsite”, Mastodon is summer in Vegas5.

So suppose the US government compulsarily acquires Twitter, bans profile-based advertising so you have to pay to use these services, and dictates the way they can show content. What do you suppose happens next? Will the Twitterati be relieved that finally they don’t get notifications about inane things? Of course not. Either they get angry or they jump ship to Mastodon, probably to a free-of-charge community server where they can burn their attention without limits.

What if we tried to regulate open source software too? I’m not going to explore that here but I don’t think this would go very well. Suffice to say it’s not just Big Tech and not just surveillance capitalism that is grabbing our attention. Even if you target the big companies with red tape there are plenty of of other options to get your dopamine hits, and there are plenty of people who like it this way.

Hari muddies the waters by talking about how YouTube’s recommendation engine promotes radicalising content, and how Facebook allows neo-Nazi groups to associate openly, or even how they would like to track your eyeballs using cameras. This stuff is important but in a discussion about focus it’s only tangentially relevant. Sure, controversial content may be a prime choice to help grow engagement but it’s not like they can’t shatter your attention with more wholesome alternatives. Just look at TikTok. In the context of this chapter, Hari’s simply throwing dirt to make the punitive measure of heavy regulation sound good.

He spends a great deal of time discussing “cruel optimism”, a real concept, but using a completely inappropriate analogy. The idea is that if you’re suffering from stress due to work expectations, or lack of health insurance, or all-consuming family duties, someone might suggest you do some mindfulness and meditation without helping to address any of the actual stressors. If it doesn’t work, maybe it’s your own fault because you didn’t mindful hard enough. A pretty crappy concept, right?

These situations are completely incomparable to what we’re actually talking about. In chapter 7 Hari is interviewing Nir Eyal, a technologist who advocates for self control.

“Two-thirds of people with a smartphone never change their notification settings. What? Right? This is not hard stuff. We just need to do this kind of stuff.”

“For God’s sake, push the fucking button that says ‘do not disturb’ for an hour if you’re going to have a meeting with your colleagues. Is that so difficult?”

Hari introduces the argument via Eyal while also trying to disprove it. The main argument he puts forward is that Eyal’s solution is “cruel optimism”—but I see very little resemblance between apps on your phone that fight for your attention and serious personal situations like inability to pay for medical costs or being expected to do unpaid overtime responding to emails. These are so far apart it borders on offensive to people who are actually in dire straits.

Like Eyal says, we can push the fucking button. Sure, there’s an addictive aspect, but we must keep in mind that if we let tech have access to our minds then we did so through our own actions and we have agency to limit or remove that access, every single day. This is very different from any kind of stress pushed upon you from outside, or Jaron Lanier comparing technology with lead paint which is a universal health risk you’re subjected to without choice.

The rhetorical device that Hari has used is that Eyal isn’t a trustworthy source to solve our focus woes—he was part of a class at Stanford that studied persuasive technologies and he previously wrote a book about how to write software to hook users. Therefore anything he says is clearly hypocritical. Why not interview any of the other millions of people who feel quite in control of their smartphone? Again, that would distract from the book’s overall goal of lobbying the government to regulate big tech.

I want to wheel out a third anecdotal example. Often tech is not even meant to be addictive but it turns out to be anyway. A few years ago I had an Apple Watch. When I first set it up it displayed all the notifications from my phone. It was ridiculous to be looking at my wrist all the time so I quickly turned that off. What remained on the watch was my fitness tracking: how many kilojoules I’d burned during the day with my physical activity.

I looked at this damn watch compulsively. It was fun to press the button and make the screen light up and see what the fitness numbers were. Well, not really fun. But it was a shiny distraction that kept drawing my attention away from whatever actually mattered and it wasn’t getting better after 4 or 5 months. Does Apple engineer it to be addictive to play with? Probably—but I really can’t fault them for whatever they did. It did exactly what I asked it to do. And I was addicted to tapping on it to look at a number all the same, so I got rid of it.

Stolen Focus doesn’t spend any time engaging with anti-tech sentiment. The logic is that we could have our smartphones and everything would be good if everyone would just design their software to be better. As my Apple Watch demonstrates that’s just not true. If you’re getting any sort of message over a wireless network, either you have notifications or you have intermittent rewards. It’s an intrinsic property of how we have to interact with communications technology. This creates addictive or distracting elements, no matter how boring the software actually is.

Someone who decides (on a permanent basis) not to have a smartphone has avoided the problem quite comprehensively. Yes they might lose some convenience, but rearchitecting the global economy is also going to entail some loss of convenience so maybe it deserves some thought? I wonder if these kinds of people didn’t show up in the book just because they’re so frustratingly smug. They’re a walking demonstration that individual control is actually possible, and it wouldn’t help the argument that the government needs to own Facebook.

The idea that smartphones were basically a mistake isn’t a mainstream one, and not one that I actually expected Hari to reach for. However at the end of the book he starts talking about stopping infinite growth of the economy, which should raise serious questions about how much smartphone technology we humans should be making anyway. To be fair there isn’t really space for this discussion in Stolen Focus. Perhaps we can look forward to a sequel called Focus During Degrowth or something like that?

So if I’m so smart, what would I do about the damn phones? In short, I think the problem will eventually take care of itself. If you’re worried, this is what I reckon we should do:

  • Research and document the hell out of technological harm, specifically what it does to our attention and mental health.
  • Take all available individual measures to engage with technology with intent and to support the things in our lives that matter.
  • Change the culture.

I don’t think we’re far away from a substantial hipster culture that eschews all digital technology. Of course, hipsters aren’t the mainstream by definition but there’s enough cultural exchange that within a few years I expect it to become uncool in many quarters to take out your phone in a social situation, just like it was when mobile phones were new.

The evidence is also accumulating that smartphones and social media are harming our kids. If there’s anything in this world that will provoke a reaction, it’s a health risk to kids. Increasing numbers of schools and towns are agreeing not to let their kids have smartphones until a particular age and I think this trend will accelerate. This process is nothing special—it’s society catching up with scientific research.

As adults we should be very aware of our relationship with our hardware, software and services and actually think about how much time we spend, just like any other potentially addictive activity that we have to navigate when living in a liberal democracy.

It’s a good book. It’s a big problem. But let’s not spend taxpayer money on Facebook, for goodness’ sake.

  1. To their credit they made a half-hearted attempt to convince me to join, knowing that I wouldn’t. I looked up how it worked on Wikipedia and politely declined. 

  2. I would readily apply different rules to children. 

  3. I’m aware this is properly called the fediverse, along with the identica, GNU social, pleroma, etc. 

  4. I offer no sources for this observation but it has been sad to watch the Twitter Mindset take hold in people I care about. The bile and tribal thinking seeps in deep, then begins to show up in different social contexts. Yes, on both the political left and right. 

  5. If it sounds like I’m projecting, yes indeedy. I may have little love for social media at the moment but I’ve written plenty of favourable things about fedi in the past.