The existential risk of our stolen focus
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In Those Years
In those years, people will say, we lost track of the meaning of we, of you we found ourselves reduced to I and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible: we were trying to live a personal life and yes, that was the only life we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged into our personal weather They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove along the shore, through the rags of fog where we stood, saying I -- Adrienne Rich, 1992, hat tip to Jim
My favourite scene from the Life of Brian starts with Brian appearing at a window, trying to get his crowd of misinformed followers to leave him alone. He is, in fact, not the Messiah, and exasperated, he tries to tell them that they have it all wrong.
“You’re all individuals!” he cries, to which the crowd responds, in unison, “Yes! We’re all individuals!”
“You’re all different!” cries Brian. “Yes! We are all different!” the crowd replies again.
And then a single voice, with a slightly melancholy edge, quietly says, “I’m not.”
He is shushed.
This diabolical twisting of the Individual — Collective polarity has been on my mind over the past few years. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had the briefest moment of hope that the world would suddenly wake up to pulling together and looking after our public good. We created universal basic incomes, which made the most significant difference in poverty alleviation in my lifetime. We undertook mass public health campaigns to keep vulnerable people safe and not allow our medical and health systems to get too overwhelmed. We even briefly saw our planet’s health rebound as cars and airplanes, and industry generally slowed down or stopped, and the skies cleared.
But it wasn’t sustainable. It was a temporary fix to a global problem and didn’t address the underlying causes of poverty, public health crises and climate change. Within a year, we had splintered and fractured. “We lost track of the meaning of we,” as Adrienne Rich wrote in 1992, “we found ourselves reduced to I and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible.”
I have been on holiday these past two weeks, on Maui, and I’ve had time to read and think and rest. One of the books I took with me is Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, a recent book that traces how our attention has been stolen by social media, schooling and the workplace. Deirdre, who recommended it to me at Jessica’s Book Store in Thornbury, Ontario, last month, said it made her quit social media.
The book isn’t entirely about social media – it’s much more extensive than that – but the history of social media’s colonization of our attention forms a big part of the book. Hari traces the rise of surveillance capitalism, delivered through the toxic and amoral algorithms that drive us into deeper and deeper echo chambers at a pace and a way that steals our attention before we are aware of it. The need to keep eyeballs on the app instead of the world around us drives us apart. At one point, he asks the provocative question about why Facebook can’t help us connect physically with friends and like-minded folks nearby so that we can make something together or enjoy an evening together. Why does it not recommend amazing projects and activities we could do with friends? It could easily do all of this. It could quickly help us build community, have a good time together, and make a lasting impact. But it doesn’t, and it won’t because the idea is to keep eyes on the app and keep people out of the physical world, which requires them to put down their phones and play.
Hari traces the origins of the psychology of social media back to the behaviouralist researchers and teachers who taught the cabal of engineer-capitalists that built this world in Silicon Valley. Nothing new there, perhaps, but what is different is that one can see how it works on one’s own mind. It is a chilling read because it lays bare capitalism’s unapologetic agenda that uses everything it can to generate wealth regardless of the impact.
Our attention is a battleground and a landscape that surveillance capitalists will exploit as readily as an oil company will exploit a shale play. The difference is that oil companies are subject to government regulation about what they can and cannot do, and surveillance capitalists are not. There is no environmental protection for the pristine nature of our creative minds. The predators have been given free rein to exploit it all.
The result is that we have become radically disconnected from each other. And the pandemic made it much worse as we retreated into our bubbles and became more reliant on social media for connection while at the same time being fed a steady stream of the stuff that is guaranteed to keep us engaged with apps and not each other. I think I first heard the term “doom scroll” in 2020. I recognize it in myself as the embarrassing desire to read one more stupid thread of misinformed comments. It makes me feel self-righteous. I can take on a few transphobes or racists from the safety of my own house. But that doesn’t make a change in the world. Half the time, I might even be arguing with robots.
But of course, this is precisely the cognitive-chemical loop that creates deep attractor basins that keeps us at home, on our devices, facing a massive barrier of inertia to get up and do something. Hari points out that this is not simply a problem that can be addressed by individual actions and habits, like putting away the phone at night in another room. While those are essential strategies for reclaiming attention, Hari clearly points out how attention-stealing is systemically enabled.
I can feel it in my work with TSS Rovers FC as we build this football club and enlist volunteers, spectators, and fans. To try to make a culture around something positive that requires people to come out and participate is to buck the forces of the entire world of surveillance capitalism that wants us on our phones and not in the stands singing and supporting young men and women, co-creating community, having fun together.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with a friend, and we discussed the crisis of belonging in our world. This has been an important concern in her research and advocacy work over several decades, which has led to all manner of crises, including mental health, development for young people, and our general tenor of social relations at the moment. I think it even contributes to the most significant issues like climate change, which arise from disconnection from each other, our natural world and the community of living things threatened by the actions of our species.
This affects all of us. Our phones and laptops have handy apps that can tell us how much time we spend on our screens, particularly on our social media apps. It is way more than you think. Thinking about places where you spend MORE time than on your social media apps is helpful. To which community do you really belong? WHOSE community do you really belong to? And, do you REALLY belong?
At the moment, I have a few activities outside of work that activates flow in my life: playing music, cooking, volunteering with both TSS Rovers FC and the Rivendell Retreat Centre, writing, gardening, and hanging out with my beloved and my kids. And altogether, I wonder if I STILL spend more time on my phone than doing these things, WHICH GIVE ME JOY. Even as I am typing this, my little tracker tells me that, on holiday, I averaged almost 4 hours of screen time daily.
These past two weeks, combined with Lent, have given me a welcome respite to reconsider my relationship with the thieves of attention who rule my life. Social media is an important part of my life and is probably how you and I are connected.
But Hari points out that the stealing of attention has existential impacts. It might be what prevents us from concentrating enough and spending the time we need together to address and move past existential crises like climate change, populism, and the threat of nuclear war. Suppose we cannot give more time to the collective problems of now because we are instead tilting at the AI-generated windmills of Facebook and Twitter. In that case, we will not be able to find one another, collaborate and perform out of our skins in the service of a viable future for this planet, its creatures, and its people.
Thanks for this Chris. I am also reading it at the moment and am on the same course of thinking about this… this eats the muscles that create the fabric of us…
That’s a perfect way to say it Phillippe!
[…] Hari is down on social media… hmmm), but I have only respect for Chris Corrigan who devotes some thoughtful observations to his recent reading of Hari’s social media […]
Thank you, Chris, this resonates strongly for me. I pretty much left twitter about 3 months ago and I feel significantly better for it. I find doing embodied things is essential to my well being, and I’m trying to make my use of the socials artistic and more heartfelt so as not to add to the firehose of content and disembodied ideas. Nice to see you back to blogging and the happy little world we created with it before Big Tech got its paws on us!
I’m reconnecting with so many of the before-times bloggers and realizing that the relationships we have are still warm, slow and thoughtful. That was a really special time and way to make friends because it brought us together and into proximity rather than locking our eyes and attention on algorithms of distraction.
I appreciate the your words, your thinking, your heart Chris. Yup, me too. There are times when I wade into a lot — so much that is interesting to follow. However, there are also many times when I feel like I’m practicing “saying no to good things.” When I don’t want to be stimulated (or can’t) by more from the external. Rather, I need to hear my voice within. Or I need to hear nothing and let the nothingness live in me. Thx for stirrings Chris.
It’s amazing to have the experience of searching for that internal voice. Sometimes it seems to be not where I left it. And that’s disturbing.
Loving this thoughtful reflection, definitely resonates.
I am really looking forward to reading Stolen Focus. I thought Hari’s previous book, Lost Connections was important as well.
I enjoyed your take on this Chris, and especially how we are passing this wonderful piece by Adrienne Rich around from Norah Bateson to Me to You- thanks for the hat-tip!
Our stolen focus is one of the reasons I teach land-based skills like hedgelaying, scything and spoon carving. Apart from the practical relevance, and the need to hold on to these skills just like an endangered language, it’s the connection to a world of embodiment, where we bring forth a world that comes from a place of material connection. These days we are like ballet dancers with our legs and arms tied, only imagining the leaps and bounds we once achieved, but also imagining other trajectories that are beyond the limits of our bodies.
Yes. I missed Hari’s history of controversy, but I took a lot from the book. And then reading about Hawaiian navigators right after that certainly puts into context the stakes. This kind of human knowledge and connection to our living place is essential for our survival, be it oceans or hedges.
I read Stolen Focus a few months ago and was absolutely riveted by it. It is a scary and important book, and you’ve done a masterful job of capturing its essence, Chris. The pull of social media is so strong – and I’ve seen glimmers of how it can be used to really connect. And yet that’s rarely what it does, because that isn’t really what it’s intended to do (for all its claims to the contrary), as Hari points out. What if we could make it work for us instead of the other way around? What if we could bend it toward real connection instead of isolation? What would that look like? I wonder…
That’s what blogs used to be about. Not as immediate, but there was always a sense of wanting to meet the folks in your blog world because you understood them. I have recently purged about 1000 followers from my twitter account most of whom only retweet stuff without adding their commentary. And on twitter hardly anyone creates anything. Mastodon is slightly better and I use that for sharing links with commentary that I periodically repost here.
Blogs are a way to make the world better and who DOESN’T want to connect with people doing that? That’s why I love what you are doing with yours.
Thanks for this post. I read this book too and it hit home for me. Last year I decided to stop social media and reclaim my time. The book was one of the factors that put it into context but more so, Jaron Lanier’s books too. In the meantime, it’s given back much time where to write, learn a foreign language to fluency, and skill up in my knitting projects. The most confronting of all however is observing others; overhearing others conversations and noticing how disconnected we are in our communications to each other. The phone is always in their hands. People are disengaged from the world around them.