Johann Hari has written multiple bestselling nonfiction books including Chasing the Scream, Lost Connections, and most recently Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. All three books examine the deep causes of problems that are often blamed on individuals, and Johann is concerned with showing how we can collectively solve problems that individual willpower isn’t enough to surmount—whether drug addiction, depression, or the inability to focus.
Today we discuss Stolen Focus, and Johann tells us how people’s capacity to pay attention has been breaking down, and what the social consequences are. He explains how smartphone addiction comes about, and the bad incentive structure that social media companies have: their revenue stream starts when you start looking at their apps and stops when you stop looking, meaning they care about “one thing and one thing only: how do we get you to open the app as often as possible and stay scrolling as long as possible.” (Many in Silicon Valley, he says, are “appalled by what they’ve done.”) Johann is scathing about those who put the blame for attention problems on the people who suffer from them: “It’s like someone is pouring itching powder all over us and then saying ‘Hey buddy, you should learn to meditate, then you wouldn’t scratch so much.’”
But Johann goes deeper than just discussing smartphone addiction, talking about how the food we eat, the pace of life generally, sleep habits, and more contribute to the inability to stay focused. Johann discusses the small steps that people can take on their own to overcome the problem, but is emphatic that we need collective solutions at the policy level. We don’t need to think that there’s something wrong with us if we can’t pay attention, but nor do we need to think that we are doomed to distraction. This transcript of Hari’s appearance on the Current Affairs podcast has been edited for grammar and clarity.
Nathan J. Robinson
Here’s where we’re going to begin: I was one of the last holdouts with a flip phone—I had one until about 2019. I held out because I had a suspicion the moment I got a one, my life would be ruined.
I remember the first time we met in New Orleans. We couldn’t find each other because you did not have a smartphone. It was striking.
It got to the point where I could not participate functionally in modern life, and realized I was a burden on other people.
Let’s be clear, that’s not just because of the phone.
Well I was more of a burden on other people than I would otherwise be! I was having to phone taxi companies in order to get around in new cities, which annoyed me. So, I got a smartphone. And indeed, exactly what I predicted would happen immediately did: I became hooked. Your book helps us to understand why. My question for you is: who stole my focus?
I started working on the book because I could feel my own attention was getting worse, and I was very worried about the young people in my life. At the start of the research for it, I thought I actually knew the answer, which is why I put off writing the book for ages. The answers were really obvious: a) someone invented the smartphone and that fucked me over; and b) I’m lacking in willpower, there’s something wrong with me—my willpower is not strong enough. And so I thought it wasn’t a very interesting book and not much to say there. But, I ended up thinking there might be more to it than that.
So, I ended up going on a very big journey all over the world, from Moscow to Miami to Melbourne—not just to cities that began with the letter “M”—and interviewed over 200 of the leading world experts on attention and focus. What I learned is that those stories I had in my mind were wrong. It’s way too simplistic to think it’s just to do with the smartphone. It was not a failure of willpower on my part. Actually, there’s scientific evidence for twelve factors that can make your attention better or worse, many of which are things I’ve never even thought about before. The way we eat, for example, profoundly affects our ability to focus and pay attention. Many of the factors that have been proven to make your attention worse have been hugely increasing in recent years. So, “who stole your attention?” is a much more complicated question than we think. It’s not the guy who invented the smartphone. Instead, it’s a very broad array of forces. Once we understand those causes, we can begin to get our attention back, partly by protecting ourselves as much as possible, but primarily by collectively taking on the forces that are doing this to us.
Yes. Obviously, there are things like the rise of ADHD in kids that preceded our addiction to smartphones. But, the guy who invented the smartphone has to bear some responsibility. As I say, when the phone came to dominate my life, I noticed an immediate shift in the degree to which I could pay attention. In the book, you discuss the ways in which our phone apps are designed, very carefully, to suck away as much of our attention as we have left to give over to them.
I would separate out two things in what you just said. There are some things inherent to the smartphone that would have damaged our attention no matter how the smartphone was designed, and no matter what the social and economic configuration in it was. But most of the factors that have harmed our attention are not inherent to the smartphone; they’re inherent to the current business model that dominates social media.
So, let’s start with the things that are, to some degree, inherent. I went to interview one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, an amazing man, Professor Earl Miller at MIT. And he said to me, “You’ve got to understand one thing about the human brain: more than anything else, you can only consciously think about one or two things at a time.” That’s it. This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain. The human brain hasn’t changed significantly in 40,000 years, and it’s not going to change on any timescale. You can only think about one or two things at a time.
But, what’s happened is we’ve fallen for mass delusion. The average teenager now believes they can follow six or seven forms of media at the same time, and the rest of us are not far behind them. Just like Professor Miller, scientists all over the world get people into labs, and get them to think they’re doing more than one thing at the time at a time, and monitor them. What they discover is always the same: you can’t do more than one thing at a time. What you do is juggle very rapidly between tasks. You think, “Wait, what did Nathan just ask me? What is this message on Facebook? What is this message on WhatsApp? What does it say on the TV just happened? Wait, what did Nathan just ask me?” So, we’re juggling, and that juggling comes with a massive cost. The technical term for it is the Switch Cost Effect. When you try to do more than one thing at a time, you do all the things you’re trying to do much less competently, make more mistakes, remember less of what you do, and are much less creative. I remember when I first learned about that, I thought, “Okay, I get that. But, that’s a small effect. This isn’t a big thing.” The evidence is that this has a really huge effect.
I’ll give you an example of a small study map backed by a much wider body of evidence. Hewlett Packard, the printer company, got a scientist to study their workers, and split them into two groups: the first group was told to get on with their task, whatever it is, and not be interrupted; the second group is told to get on with their task, whatever it is, but at the same time have to answer a heavy load of emails and phone calls—pretty much how most of us live now. At the end of it, the scientists tested the IQ of both groups. The group that had not been interrupted scored 10 IQ points higher than the group that was interrupted. To give you a sense of how big the effect is, if we got stoned together, our IQs would go down, in the short term, by five points. So, in the short term, being chronically interrupted is twice as bad for your IQ as getting stoned. You’d be better off sitting at your desk doing one thing at a time and smoking a spliff than you would be not smoking a spliff and being constantly interrupted. Now, to be clear—don’t get the wrong idea—you’d obviously be better off doing neither. But this is one of the reasons why Professor Miller says we are living in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation, as a result of being constantly interrupted. Now, to some degree, interruption is inherent to the smartphone—that’s what it does. But it’s important to understand that smartphones are stuffed with apps, which are specifically designed to interrupt us, for reasons that we can talk about, and that technology does not have to work that way.
When I think about the loss of focus in my own life, I think about how when I get to work, I open up my browser and start looking at the news, and then get distracted by some tweets, and then start working on something, and then think, “I should look that up,” go down some Wikipedia rabbit hole, and then drift back to the document periodically. This is how I think of my own loss of focus, and seems to contrast, at least to my memory, with how I operated many years ago. But let me ask you: What are you trying to get at when you talk about cognitive degradation, a crisis of focus? It’s not just that, it’s more. Talk more about the social problem that you are trying to identify here.
Yes, one person who really helped me to think about this is Dr. James Williams, who worked at the heart of Google. Google is obviously a key part of one of the twelve factors that have been harming our attention, for reasons I will come to. He became very uncomfortable with what Google was doing. In fact, one day he spoke at a tech conference, and in the audience were the people designing the stuff you or your kids are using all the time, and he said to them, “If there’s anyone here who wants to live in the world that we’re creating, please put up your hand,” and nobody did. Not long afterward he quit, and became, I would argue, the most important philosopher of attention in the world. He argues that there are three kinds of attention that we need to think about—I would argue there’s also a fourth (I know he agrees with this, because we’ve discussed it). The first level of attention is what you’re getting at—your experience. It’s what he calls—going back to William James, the founder of modern American psychology—your spotlight.
Think about the room I’m in now: I’m listening to you and responding to your questions. But, if I turn my head to the right, I can see the street and see people out there. If I turn out a little bit more, I can see all my books. If I turn my head to the left, I can see the street on the other side, where there are also people. I can hear the heating in my apartment. I’m filtering all of that out and narrowing down my attention to you. “What did Nathan just ask me?” You asked me about this question. So, that’s called your spotlight. Most people listening will feel their spotlight is being disrupted a lot. For example, you go to the fridge to get a Diet Coke, and on the way there, you get a text from your friend and start replying, and suddenly, you’re standing in the kitchen and don’t remember why you went there, and go back to your laptop and don’t have a Diet Coke. That level of constant disruption is happening to most of us. The average American office worker now focuses on any one task for only three minutes. So, this is a profound disruption to our spotlight.
But actually, although that’s debilitating, it’s only the first layer of the disruption to attention we’re experiencing. The next layer is what Dr. Williams calls your starlight. Your starlight is your ability not to achieve a short-term act like getting a Diet Coke in the fridge, but to achieve a long-term goal, like wanting to write a book, set up a campaign group, start a business, be a good parent, play the guitar, or whatever it is. He argues, I think, very persuasively, as many other scientists do, that our starlight is also being profoundly disrupted. It’s called your starlight because if you’re lost in the desert and don’t have GPS, you look to the stars and remember where you’re going. But, if you’re jammed up all the time and never get time to think, your ability to achieve your long term goals is also profoundly harmed.
There’s a level above that he calls your daylight, which is not the ability to achieve a long-term goal, but to figure out what your long term goals are. How do you know what campaign group you want to set up? What book you want to write? What business you want to run? What it means to be a good parent? To think about those things, you need rest, contemplation, conversation, mind wandering—all sorts of things that are being squeezed out of our life. It’s called your daylight because you can see a room most clearly when it’s flooded with daylight. I would argue many of us are experiencing a sense of a kind of confusion about who we are because we’ve lost or are losing our daylight.
There’s a level above that I would say is even more consequential, which I would call our stadium lights, which is not just our ability to achieve our individual formula and long-term goals, but our ability to formulate and achieve collective goals as a society. How can we come together and achieve anything if we can’t listen and are constantly screaming at each other and constantly interacting through mediums designed to make us angry and hateful towards each other? So, I would argue there are these four layers. That typology helps us to begin to see some of what can seem like a very small thing, but then opens up onto these much bigger crises.
At Current Affairs, I’ve noticed that so much of what I’m thinking about in terms of the political issues I’m working with is determined by whatever happens to pop into my Twitter feed. So, I think about ten different issues a day because those are the things that someone said a thing about, but in order to actually work on improving the world in the ways we want, we have to be able to step back from whatever is barraging us and think about what matters, and what doesn’t. What are the things I want to be talking about right now? With the magazine, we’re trying to [publish what we think] you should care about, even though you haven’t heard about it in a while.
That’s so good, Nathan. It’s so important. You’ve gotten to the core of one of the problems here. It is particularly problematic that you’re getting that feedback from Twitter in particular. It’s worth taking a step back and explaining why. I didn’t really understand this until I did the research for my book. I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley interviewing people who’ve been at the heart of this machine. The most fascinating, striking thing immediately was how guilty and ashamed they feel. They are appalled by what they’ve done, in fascinating ways that I wrote in the book. There were a few mechanisms I didn’t fully understand that help us to understand why what you’re doing there, and what so many of us are doing, is so problematic and leading to such harm.
For anyone listening or reading, if you open TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram now, those companies immediately begin to make money out of you in two ways. The first one is really obvious: you see advertising, and everyone knows how that works. The second way is much more important: everything you ever do on these apps, and everything you communicate in so-called private messages, is scanned and sorted by artificial intelligence algorithms to get a sense of who you are. Let’s say you’ve said you like Bernie: it’s going to figure out you’re probably on the left. And let’s say you’ve told your mom you just bought some diapers: it figures out that you’ve got a baby. If you’ve been using these apps for longer than a few weeks, they have got thousands, if not tens of thousands, of data points about you. They know a huge amount about who you are. And they know that, partly, to sell the information about you to advertisers—someone selling diapers wants to know they’re marketing to people who have babies—but primarily, they’re figuring out what will keep you scrolling for a very simple reason: every time you open the app and start to scroll, they begin to make money. The longer you scroll, the more money they make because of the ads you’ll see, and every time you close the app, that revenue stream disappears. So, all of this AI and algorithms, all of this genius in Silicon Valley, is, when it comes to social media, geared towards one thing and one thing only: figuring out how to get you to open the app as often as possible and scroll as long as possible.
I remember saying to people in Silicon Valley who’ve been in this machine, it can’t be that simple—that can’t be the only thing. They looked at me, and they looked kind of baffled: “How did you think it happened? What did you think went on?” In the same way, all the head of KFC cares about, in his professional capacity, is how often you went to KFC this week, and how big the bucket you bought was. All these companies care about, and all their design is about, is to get you to open their apps as often as possible and scroll as long as possible.
But there’s a kicker that is really important to what you’re saying about getting your news from Twitter. The algorithms are set up to scan your behavior, and the behavior of everyone who uses the apps, and figure out what keeps you scrolling. And although this was not the intention of the people at any of these social media companies, they bumped into an underlying truth about human psychology has been known about for 90 years now: negativity bias. It’s very simple. Human beings will stare longer at things that make them angry or upset than they will at things that make them feel good. If you’ve ever seen a car crash on the highway, you know exactly what I mean: you stared longer at the car wreck than the pretty flowers on the other side of the street. This is very deep in human nature. Ten-week-old babies will stare longer at an angry face than a happy face. It’s probably for very good evolutionary reasons. Our ancestors who were not alert to angry faces probably got clubbed to death. So, you can see why this is deep in our nature.
But, when this quirky human psychology combines with algorithms designed to maximize scrolling, it produces a horrendous outcome. Think about two teenage girls who go to the same party and leave and go home on the same bus. One of them opens a phone and does a TikTok video and says, “What a great party, everyone was nice. We danced to Taylor Swift. What fun!” The other girl opens her phone and says, “Karen was a fucking skank at that party and her boyfriend is an asshole”—an angry, denunciatory rant. Now, the app is scanning to see the kind of language you use. It will put the first nice video into a few people’s feeds, and put the second video into far more people’s feeds. If it’s enraging, it’s engaging. You can see how these arguments go.
Now, that’s bad enough at the level of two teenage girls on a bus. We all know what’s happening to girls’ mental health. Think about what happens when that principle—the nice sane people are muffled and the angry, hostile, crazy people are pushed to the front and amplified—is applied to a whole country? Except we don’t have to imagine it, because we’ve all been living it for the last decade.
My theory is one of the reasons Elon Musk tweets ten annoying opinions a day is because he understands that the worse his opinions are, the angrier they make people, and the more successful Twitter as an app will be.
We don’t have to hypothesize about this one: we know what Mark Zuckerberg knows, thanks to the heroic whistleblower Frances Haugen. In the wake of the election of Trump and the catastrophic victory of Brexit in my own country, Facebook set up an internal group of its own data scientists to figure out if their algorithms played a role in promoting these events. They came back and discovered that they were systematically promoting far right material. In fact, they discovered that a third of all the people who joined Neo-Nazi groups in Germany joined because Facebook had explicitly recommended it. You might remember, Germany has some experience with Nazism.
The Wall Street Journal covered it in a very dry way: they said that after Zuckerberg was given this information, he disbanded the group and asked to never be brought any information like this ever again. They know what they’re doing. It wasn’t their intention at the start. They know that when the genocide in Myanmar began, their algorithms absolutely amplified hateful, genocidal messages against the Rohingya Muslim minority and fueled the genocide there. In fact, the UN found that. So, they know what they’re doing.
People within these companies have raised ethical concerns, but really can’t stop. If you’re a for-profit company, it’s very hard to build in restraints on your own profit making—in fact, it’s arguably not legal, because it violates the obligation to serve the shareholders interests.
Yes, there’s a really helpful historical analogy here, one that was very clarifying for me, first explained to me by Jaron Lanier, another great Silicon Valley dissident. You’re a bit younger than me, Nathan, so I don’t think you’ll remember this, but the standard form of gasoline when I was a kid in the U.S. and Britain, and indeed, everywhere in the world, was leaded gasoline. It was discovered that exposure to lead is terrible for people’s brains, and particularly for children’s ability to focus and pay attention. In fact, when leaded petrol was invented for commercial sale, in the 1920s there was an amazing scientist called Dr. Alice Hamilton who entirely predicted the disaster that was to come and was mansplained out of the room.
And then the lead industry, for the next 50 to 60 years, funded completely denialist bullshit and fake science, claiming there was no harm from lead. But by the time you got to the 1970s, the evidence was just overwhelming. The exposure to lead was causing all sorts of terrible problems for children’s mental and psychological development. So, what happened was a group of ordinary moms, what were at the time called housewives, banded together and said, “Why the fuck are we allowing this? Why are we allowing these for-profit industries to screw up our kids brains?”
And it’s important to notice what they didn’t say: They didn’t say, “let’s ban all cars and gasoline”—just like there’s a caricature of people making the critique I’m making, that we want to get rid of tech. It’s absurd; we don’t think that. No, what they said is: let’s ban the leaded gasoline and force the companies to move to a different business model that doesn’t poison our children. And what happened? It followed the classic pattern that Gandhi said of all successful political movements: first they ignored them, then they laughed at them, then they fought them, then they won. As everyone knows, we don’t have leaded gasoline anymore. In fact, almost no place in the world has leaded gasoline. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control has calculated the average American child is three to five IQ points higher than they would have been had we not banned leaded gasoline.
If you think about the twelve factors harming our attention that I wrote about in Stolen Focus, there are two levels in which we’ve got to tackle all of them. I think of them as defense and offense. There are many things we can do to defend ourselves and our children at an individual level—I’m passionately in favor of those things. But, I want to be really honest with people, because I don’t think most books about attention are leveling with them. I am passionately in favor of these individual changes. They will make a difference, but on their own, they’re not going to solve the problem. Because at the moment, it’s like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day, and then leaning forward and saying, “Hey, buddy, you should learn to meditate, then you wouldn’t scratch so much.” You respond, “Fuck you! I’ll learn to meditate, that’s valuable, but you need to stop pouring this damn itching power over me.” We have to actually deal collectively with the factors that are doing this to us. I can talk more about how we can do that in relation to media, the food industry, the way we work, or the way our schools work. There are a large array of factors that are doing this to us, and I can talk about countries that have begun to do this.
What I really liked about your trilogy of books is that each one of them takes a topic on which it is very common to have books for a popular audience claim: “Here’s the secret to how you can overcome your problem.” And what you say is, it’s not that you don’t have agency and are entirely bumped around by forces beyond your control. You encourage people—whether it’s drug addiction, depression, or loss of focus—not to blame themselves for things where there are powerful actors deploying things that are impossible for an individual alone to just use sheer willpower to resist. It’s the libertarian theory that we all have to take personal responsibility and everyone should be blamed when they fuck up their life. It’s cruel and vicious and exonerates those responsible for causing or manipulating us into making bad choices.
It’s funny you said that about willpower. One of the first interviews I did for the book was with a guy called Professor Roy Baumeister, the leading world expert on willpower. He wrote a book called Willpower—he’s without question the leading expert on this, and a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia. When I went to interview him, I said, “I’m thinking of writing this book about attention, and I’m really interested in everything you’ve learned.” And he said something like—the exact words are in the book and on the website—”It’s interesting you say that, because I’ve discovered I just can’t really pay attention to things anymore. I play Candy Crush a lot on my phone….” And I responded, “Wait, didn’t you write a book called Willpower? Aren’t you the leading expert on willpower in the world?!” He’s fucking playing Candy Crush all day!
So I think it helps you to think about something: it’s not that willpower is not a real thing or doesn’t have some value—it does—but sometimes this is divided. So, sometimes I’ll say, like I did to you: defense/offense; you’ve got individual agency, and then collective action. But I actually even think that is misleading, because the most effective form of individual agency on most of these issues is to band together with your fellow citizens and achieve a collective change. I’ll give you an example of a very concrete case that can sound somewhat weird and abstract, something I reported on for the book.
In France in 2018, they had a huge epidemic of what they called “le burnout,” which I don’t think I need to translate. The French government was trying to figure out why everyone was so burned out. So, under pressure from labor unions—put a bookmark in that, it’s really important to understand that they would never have done it if France did not have very high public and private sector unionization—they set up a government inquiry led by a guy called Bruno Mettling, who was the head of Orange, one of their biggest telecom companies. He did loads of research and discovered the biggest factor was that 40 percent of French workers felt they could never stop checking their phone or email while they were awake because their boss could message them at any time of the day or night. If they didn’t answer, they’d be in trouble. This is a very recent change. I don’t remember my parents ever being contacted by their employers at home. When I was a kid—not so long ago, I’m 43—the only people who were on call were doctors, the president, and the prime minister, and even doctors weren’t on call all the time. So, we’ve gone from almost nobody being on call to almost half the workforce being permanently on call. I can give those people all the lovely individual advice in the world about the evidence about how we’re sleeping so much less that it’s harming our attention. “Here are the following proactive steps you can take to reduce your multitasking.” I can go through all of that, but it’s not a liberation to them.
It’s a cruel taunt. It’s like going up to a homeless person and saying, “Hey, buddy, you know what would make you feel much better? Why don’t you go into the Ritz over there and have a steak?” You’re giving advice they cannot follow in the current social configuration. So, what happened in France was, rather than everyone responding by saying, “We’re fucked then,” or, “There’s something wrong with me, I just need to adapt to this inhuman situation,” the labor unions began to fight for a very simple solution to this problem, which they rapidly achieved. Every worker in France now has something called the right to disconnect. Very simple: It says every worker needs to have their work hours laid out and written down in their contract, and when your work hours are over, you don’t have to check your phone or email. That’s it.
When I was in Paris just before the plague hit, interviewing people about this, Rentokil, the pest control company, had just been fined 70,000 euros for telling off one of their workers for not checking his email an hour after he left work. That is a collective change. Very few individuals can assert a right to disconnect on their own. I doubt there’s anyone listening, unless they’re very powerful in their company or wherever they work, who would try going to their boss and demand: “Boss, I’ve decided I’ve got these work hours, and I’m not looking at my phone after work.” You can’t do that as an individual. But reactively, you absolutely can do that. France is not a science fiction creation. I’ve been there; it’s very nice. To me, it is an act of individual agency on the part of those French people: they chose to join unions, they fought through them. But that individual agency is combined with collective agency to free them up to make the individual changes. Talking about sleep, food, and all the other practical things is much easier to do when you have a right to disconnect, or many other collective changes that I write about.
On the program, we interviewed a former worker for Capital One. They talked about how credit card companies get people to go into debt they wouldn’t want to get into if they weren’t being manipulated by massive experiments, conducted on millions of people, to figure out how to get them to do something bad for them. She pointed out that the companies will extend people’s credit against their will, and, for example, give them an $8,000 line of credit instead of $3,000. What she said is, when you interview people, they want to be tied to the mast and not be offered the credit that is bad for them. But instead, the companies are figuring out how to entice them. This is a thing we can reform, by telling the companies they’re not allowed to extend people credit without asking them first. We can see that the argument that any choice people make in a market is a choice that is good for them is obviously wrong. The only way you can fix it is by constraining the institution that has the capacity to entice them into that choice.
That’s really important, and it’s worth thinking about how it can be applied to attention. So, we’ve talked about social media. One of the things I asked a lot of the people in Silicon Valley is: Is there an equivalent to the lead in the lead paint? What could we change in the model of social media? Because I don’t want to get rid of social media—it would be a ludicrous thing to aspire to, and I don’t think it would even be desirable. So, is there an equivalent to the lead in the lead paint? Here’s an example: Aza Raskin, who designed a key part of how most websites work—his dad, Jef Raskin invented the Apple Macintosh with Steve Jobs—said to me, “You’ve got to ban the current business model. You’ve got to say that a business model based on secretly tracking you in order to figure out the weaknesses in your attention, hack it, and keep you scrolling, is just inhuman.” Like lead in the paint, we don’t tolerate it. We don’t allow it, it’s banned. I said to him, “Let’s imagine we did that, and the next day I open Facebook, it would say, ‘Sorry, everyone, we’ve gone fishing.’” He responded, “Of course not. What would happen is it would move to a different business model.”
Almost everyone listening or reading this will have an experience of those two alternative business models. One business model is subscription, and we all know how that works: you pay a certain amount to Netflix or HBO, and in return, you get access. The key thing about that shift is that, at the moment, you’re not the customer. In fact, Facebook or TikTok have customer service hotlines, but you can’t find them— advertisers find them. You are the product they sell, famously, to the real customer who’s the advertiser. Currently, they’re thinking, “How do we invade Nathan, in order to sell his attention to our customer, the advertiser?” But if you become the subscriber, suddenly, you are the customer. Suddenly, they’re not asking, “How do we hack and invade Nathan?” Instead, they’re asking, “What does Nathan want?” But, it turns out, Nathan wants to be able to pay attention and feels good when he meets up with his friends offline. “Okay, let’s design our app to maximize offline contact rather than doom scrolling.” It’s ridiculously easy to do that—my friends in Silicon Valley could do it in a week if they wanted to. But the incentives aren’t there right now.
There’s other potential models to think about, which I would probably prefer, and would have to be done with all sorts of protections. Think about the sewers: everyone listening or reading is near a sewer. Before we had sewers, we had sewage in the streets, people got cholera, and it was terrible. We all pay to build the sewers, and own and maintain them together. We might want to own the information pipes together, because we’re getting the equivalent of cholera, but with our attention and our politics. The reason I say you want to do this cautiously is obviously it would have to be independent of the state. We can all imagine how terrible it would have been if Donald Trump controlled infrastructure for social media. But provided it was independent—the BBC, a flawed institution, but the most trusted media institution in the world, I think for good reason, is a good model for that.
The key thing is, if you don’t change the incentives, nothing else changes. The longer you scroll and the more money they make, they’re going to get better and better at invading you. And as my friend Tristan Harris, a person at the heart of Google who became a very brave whistleblower, always says, you can try having self-control, but under the current model, there are 10,000 engineers on the other side of the screen trying to undermine it. So, in the same way the lead industry was never going to stop poisoning brains, the only thing that will stop these companies is a peaceful democratic movement.
Yes, you don’t have self-control, but the companies don’t have self-control, either. We had the authors of a book on McKinsey on the show, and they talked about how McKinsey and Company consultants helped fuel the opioid crisis by maximizing the amount of drugs that were sold. They also made money advising the hospitals on how to more efficiently treat their patients. So, you make money on both ends: you cause the problem, and then sell the solution. You have this incredible part of your book, an interview with the guy who wrote the book on how to design addictive habit-forming products, and then also makes money selling the solution—a book on how to free yourself from your terrible, addictive, bad social media habits.
His name is Nir Eyal, and I chose him because he is a representative of the wider attitude in Silicon Valley, not because he’s a particularly heinous example—he’s not. But, people can listen to the full interview on the book’s website. I put all of it online because I wanted to be fair to him, because I’m quite critical and wanted people to be able to hear his responses in full. He wrote a book called Hooked, something like a Bible in Silicon Valley—it was held up by the head of Microsoft to their engineers. It’s a really influential book in Silicon Valley about how to design maximally addictive products and uses words like “hooking” and so on.
His ideal is: Imagine a woman called Julie, who just can’t stand in a queue without checking her app—that’s the dream. And then he wrote Indistractable, and the solution, you’ll be amazed to hear, doesn’t lie in stopping people from designing apps that fuck your head up. He says there are a few minor things: if you use an app for more than 40 hours a week, it should give you a warning saying you might be addicted, and a couple of other trivial things, from my perspective. What was so fascinating is the contrast between these two books: in the first book, Hooked, he describes this incredibly sophisticated technology that is very good at hooking you; in the second book, he offers this extraordinarily feeble advice, “picture of yourself as a leaf on a river, and imagine yourself being washed up…” It’s not that I disagree with any of the things he recommends people do. Some of it is perfectly helpful minor advice.
I want to stress that don’t think he’s a bad person. But I think he’s a very good example of what the late philosopher Lauren Berlant called cruel optimism. Cruel optimism is where you have a problem that is largely driven by wider social forces—whether it’s obesity, depression, or attention problems—and you say to people, “I have the solution to your problem: do these three easy steps, and you’re going to be set free.” Now it sounds like optimism, because you’re saying you’ve got the solution.
“I can help! We can solve your problem.”
And it’s usually not cynically mean, and instead sincerely offered. There will be some small proportion of the population where that will be enough to solve the problem. But the reason it’s cruel is that the solution you’re offering is not commensurate to the size of the causes, and so you set people up to fail. And when they fail, crucially, they then blame themselves. “But I did the thing. I did the diet, but I’m still overweight. I got the meditation apps, but I still can’t pay attention.” Now, it’s really important to stress the alternative to cruel optimism is not pessimism. We absolutely do not want pessimism. That’s indeed what big tech and the other forces like the food industry driving this crisis want. The alternative to cruel optimism is authentic optimism, which is where you scale the solutions to be commensurate to the size of the problem. And for all of these twelve factors, we focus very much on the tech one. But for all the factors—the crisis in our schools, the way we work, the food industry, air pollution, the lack of sleep—we need to scale the solutions to be commensurate to the size of the problem.
As you have mentioned repeatedly, we’re not just talking about apps and smartphones. Could you elaborate more on this point that everything went much deeper than tech companies hooking us to social media apps?
I’ll give you an example of one of the twelve causes—there were quite a lot of them that I literally never thought about in relation to this problem. The way we eat is profoundly harming our ability to focus and pay attention. There’s been a fascinating scientific movement called nutritional psychiatry, which studies how what we eat is profoundly harming our moods and faculties, like attention. I interviewed many of these people all over the U.S. and Europe as well, and they’ve identified several ways in which the way we eat is really harming our attention. I’ll just give two.
So, imagine you when you wake up, you have the standard American breakfast: what I often have is either sugary cereal or white bread toasted and buttered. What that does is releases a huge amount of energy really quickly into your brain—it releases a lot of glucose, which feels great. You think, “Wow, I’m awake and ready for the day.” But it’s really so much energy so fast that you’ll get to your desk an hour and a half later and have a profound energy slump. You experience what’s called brain fog, where you can’t think very clearly because you haven’t got very much energy and glucose in your brain, until you have another sugary snack and get another surge, and then another crash. Another surge, another crash. As Dale Pinnock, one of the leading nutritionists in Europe put it to me, the way we eat is putting us on a roller coaster of energy spikes and crashes throughout the day, which leaves us with unnecessarily long patches of brain fog. Whereas, if for breakfast you had oatmeal with blueberries, that releases energy very steadily, and you don’t experience the same crash and brain fog.
Now, of course, you can’t talk about that without talking about why we eat in ways that would be completely unrecognizable to our grandparents. That didn’t happen just through personal choice—it happened through an extraordinarily sophisticated food industry. All sorts of factors have priced out fresh, nutritious food, and priced in profoundly addictive, attention damaging foods. Think about one of the other causes related to food: There was a study done here in Britain in the city of Southampton in 2006. They got 193 kids and split them into two groups. The first group was given just water to drink, and the second group was given water laced with additives that occur in the kind of foods our kids eat all the time— M&M’s, ready meals, that kind of thing. Then they monitored the kids: the kids who drank the additives were way more likely to become manic and suffer attention problems than the kids who didn’t. In the wake of that, the European Union, which Britain was part of in those halcyon days, banned all those additives—the United States has not. I’m sure that’s one reason for the gap in attention problems between American and European kids.
Actually, anyone listening or reading, if you want to do a little experiment next time you come to Europe, before you leave the U.S., buy a pack of M&M’s at the airport. When you land in Europe, buy another pack of M&M’s and open them next to each other. The American M&M’s are much brighter, glowing next to the feeble and anemic European M&M’s, because we don’t have those additives that make them glow. We also don’t have kids who are completely fucking addled. There are so many factors that I learned about for the book. Again, you can see how there is an individual component—particularly privileged people like you and I can actually change our diets, but also how there’s a huge structural element to it.
Dr. Uma Naidoo in Boston talks about how, after funding for school meals was massively cut in the United States, the vending machine industry made a fortune going into American schools and selling kids absolute garbage and shit to eat. It tracks quite closely with the rise in diagnosed “ADHD,” because I’m sure that’s one of the causal factors—it’s not the only one by any means, but a significant one.
I’d like to conclude by returning to the question of what the ultimate problem here is. It’s not just that we are not productive enough. I think it’s easy to mistake the “we’ve lost attention” argument for one focused on work: “We need to focus on our stuff, get down to business, and get stuff done.” You point out that it’s so much deeper in how it’s destroying us, not just our ability to produce, but everything from our ability to appreciate. You talk about our ability to form lasting political movements, achieve our goals, and live the lives that we would want to live if we could think clearly about what we want to do next.
I would say to anyone listening or reading, think about anything you’ve ever achieved in your life that you’re proud of, whether it’s being part of an activist group, being a good parent, learning to play the guitar, whatever it is—the thing that you’re proud of requires a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. When your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down, your ability to achieve your goals and solve problems breaks down, too. You feel less competent because you are, in fact, less competent. And when you start to get your attention back, what’s so thrilling about it is that you become competent again. So, I think you’re absolutely right.
What can’t we have if we don’t have attention and depth? One of the reasons I wrote the book is because a young person I really love, my godson, could not focus, and I could see his inability to focus was setting him up to fail in life. If you can’t focus, you can’t form proper deep friendships and achieve meaningful work. You can’t have a meaningful life if you don’t experience depth and attention. And I think you highlighted a really important one, which is also another issue with the way this is normally talked about. Most of the existing literature about attention, in addition to being cruel optimism, in addition to being highly individualized, is also framed almost entirely as: ”This is how you become a more productive little worker drone.”
One of the places I went to is a company in New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian, where they moved to a four-day week for the same pay. I had a real dilemma about this when I wrote about it, because the company moved and was monitored by Auckland Business School. They found the company achieved more in four days than they had in five—not per hour. Overall, they achieved more in four days than five, which seems completely bizarre to us. First, you think, “It’s too good to be true.” But this has been found in almost all the four-day work week experiments. And then, as Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford explained to me, just ask any sports fan: “Do you want your team to go on to the pitch exhausted, having not slept and strung out?” Of course not. When they’ve rested, they play better in the game. Why would it be different for the rest of us?
But, the dilemma I had was: you can make a case for the four-day week, which doesn’t cost us anything; we’re actually more productive in four days than we’re in five. I felt uncomfortable writing that in the book, because the truth is, even if the four-day week made us “less productive” towards the capitalist economy, I would still be in favor of it. You will not lie on your deathbed and think about the contribution you made to GDP. Instead, you will think about moments of love, meaning, and connection in your life. Part of your life, hopefully, will be that you had meaningful work, and you contributed in that way. Most of us have jobs that we have no control over and make us miserable—we’ve talked about this before in our previous discussion about Lost Connections about how we can deal with that.
I very much agree with you that there’s so much about how attention is talked about is wrong. It was fascinating being interviewed about this, because I remember doing a British interview with a person who said, “What you’re saying is we need to learn to meditate and put our phones in the other room.” I said, “No!”
Open the book!
I remember we talked about this in relation to my book about depression, Lost Connections. People are so heavily propagandized. It’s amazing how long it takes for very banal things to break through the shell of that propaganda. Think about depression: Almost everyone would agree with the statement, “Do you think being lonely makes you more likely to be depressed?” Almost everyone would say, “Yes”—it’d be the odd person who didn’t. Then, you stopped the same person further down the street and ask, “What causes depression?”—they wouldn’t name the ten factors that I wrote about in Lost Connections, one of which can be biological contributions. They overwhelmingly say it’s a chemical imbalance in your brain. I’m not saying that there aren’t very real biological contributions to depression, or that chemical antidepressants have no role—they do. But, these simplified propaganda stories squeeze out more complex and truthful stories most people know at some level.
If we stopped anyone in the street and asked, “If you sleep six hours a night, eat shitty food, have no control over your work, and are really stressed out, what’s going to happen to your attention?” Very few people will respond it’s going to improve. Most people know these things at some level. But, we’re taught to be disconnected from the causes of our own problems, and indeed, to seek solutions to those problems through things we can just buy. It’s rather like the thing you’re saying about the opioid crisis and McKinsey consultants profiting from both ends. We have a capitalist system that makes us unable to focus, fucked over, depressed, and miserable. And then it says, “Great news, I got a solution: buy the following 20 things, and you’ll be able to focus and won’t be depressed anymore,” rather than dealing with the underlying problems.
But, I am absolutely confident I left the book quite optimistic. This is not happening to us because it’s some law of nature. It’s not just technology—as Tristan says, the question is not: are you pro-tech or anti-tech, any more than the question about food is: are you pro-food or anti-food? The question is, What tech, designed for what purpose, is working in whose interests? If this was just about the smartphone and tech, we’d be fucked, because we’re not going to give those things up. It’s about a much more complex and nuanced question.
Dr. James Williams said to me, the axe existed 1.4 million years before anyone said, “Should we put a handle on this thing?” For all the twelve factors I write about that are harming our attention, from air pollution to the way our schools and workplaces currently work, these are very recent changes. People in their 40s can remember the time before many of them. So, we can deal with these factors. But it requires a massive shift in consciousness. We need to stop blaming ourselves, and we need to stop only asking for small tweaks, valuable though they are. We are not medieval peasants begging at the courts of King Zuckerberg and King Musk for a few little crumbs of attention from their table. We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our own minds. And together, we can take them back if we’re determined to.
The book’s emphasis on collective action, laying out how our systems are artificial and can be altered, and trying to not be cruel to people by telling them they can solve things on their own, take collective effort, organizing, and activism. You lay out the fact that you did not manage to solve the attention problem in your own life and are still struggling with it. You also say that you’re not going to offer a magic bullet solution, and there are certain things that we all have to struggle with in the meantime before we achieve systemic changes. What’s the best advice you could give people in the meantime to mitigate the attention crisis as much as possible in their own lives?
I’ll give you an example. I’m going to hold it up to the microphone, stupidly.
You’re holding a transparent box with a timer built in on the top.
You take off the lid, put in your phone, put on the lid and turn the dial at the top, and push the button down—it locks your phone away for anything between five minutes and a whole day. I will not sit down to watch a film with someone unless they agreed to put their phone in the phone jail, or have my friends around for dinner unless they agree to imprison their phone. That’s one example. I use it for three hours a day. Some people won’t be so privileged, and that’s why we need the collective solutions. For people with kids, I would say it should be almost legally mandatory that you have dinner for half an hour or 45 minutes with everyone’s phones in the phone jail. Parents screaming at their kids to get off their phone while looking at their own phone—that’s not going to be a very effective solution.
Install Freedom, an app that will either cut you off from specific websites—say you were addicted to Instagram or The Guardian website—from the entire internet for however long you set it to. There are dozens of things you can do as an individual that are really important and will definitely help. I’m really in favor of these individual changes, but it’s a thing where people on our side of this debate often fall into a trap where they end up opposing them. This is folly, of course—you need both. The barrier between individual and collective is porous. Collective changes only happen if individuals band together and demand them.
Yes. There’s something equally cruel about telling a story that suggests people don’t have any agency or control over their own lives and are hopeless because they’re trapped in a system.
This is a often real problem on our side of politics. And obviously, the best left thinkers are on the opposite of this, whether it’s Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, AOC—they are absolutely the antithesis of this. But you get some people on the left who are not, and I understand where it comes from. If you’re defeated long enough, it can produce a kind of romanticized internalized hopelessness: “We’re trapped in the matrix, look at these horrific powerful forces arranged against us, we’re never going to prevail.”
But it’s not true. It’s really not. And I really think the biggest single thing I have taken from being gay in my life is a profound sense of political optimism. With the young people in my life now, if I show them the homophobic front pages of British newspapers when I was the age they are now—this probably won’t make sense to your listeners and readers because you have to be familiar with British homophobic slang from the 1980s, which I hope isn’t a niche interest among them—a pejorative gay term that was used about gay people was to call them benders. There was a very popular British soap opera called EastEnders. When I was maybe eight or nine, it featured the first ever gay kiss on British television. On the front page of the best-selling British newspaper, The Sun, the next day was: “It’s East Benders,” like this was corrupting the country’s children. When I showed that to one of my nephews online, he said, “Did people call the police?”
Now, if the craziest right-wing conservative MP tweeted that, he would have to stand down. So, you’ve got 2,000 years of gay people being persecuted, imprisoned, and burned alive, and really in the space of 100 years (I’m not underestimating we still have more to do), we have this staggering transformation: from full criminalization to gay marriage in less than 50 years. What a staggering achievement. Things seem absolutely permanent, unfixable, and immovable. The first ever gay pride parade in London was in 1972—20 people turned up and were all beaten and arrested by the police. Now, London shuts down for Pride every year, and the Muslim mayor of London and the prime minister are on the march. Again, I’m not underestimating, there are still problems, but I have seen transformations I could not have conceived of when I was a gay kid. Things that seem permanent and eternal can be torn down if enough people fight them.
One of the good things about the attention crisis is: gay people are only about 5 percent of the population, and the attention crisis is affecting pretty much everyone, and no one is benefiting, except Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, who are not the most popular people in the world. Think about what happened in Australia. Scott Morrison, the right-wing prime minister of Australia, someone I loathe and detest, did a good thing. Just before the pandemic, most Australians were getting the news from the Sydney Morning Herald on Facebook, but Facebook was getting all the revenue. So Scott Morrison said to Facebook, “We can’t carry on like this, we need a media, and you’re going to have to give a small percentage of your advertising revenue to our media.”
Facebook screamed and shouted and cut Australia off from certain key functions on Facebook. Scott Morrison held his nerve, and what happened, quietly, behind the scenes, is that Facebook gave in. Now, a lot of money goes to the Australian media, because we are much more powerful than them. We, acting through our governments or through collective movements, are much more powerful and can take on these things.
At the moment, we’re in a race. On one side, you’ve got all these twelve factors that are harming our attention and focus, many of which are poised to become more powerful. Paul Graham, one of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley, says the world will be more addictive in the next 40 years than it was in the last. On the other side of the race, there needs to be a movement of all of us saying, “No, you don’t get to do that to us and our children. No, that’s not a good life. No, we choose a life where certainly we have technology, but we also have depth, can think, are not exhausted all the time, and our children can play outside and read books.”
It’s not a wild goal. But you don’t get what you don’t fight for. We’re not going to get that unless we are very aware of the forces at work and resist them. These are not popular forces. There are very few people who like the fact their attention is getting worse. Most of us want to have the option of depth and thought.
We can do this. There are solutions. I’ve seen them in practice, from France to New Zealand. They are not rocket science or science fiction. They’re things we can all fight for, and if we don’t, we’re fucked, because the current dynamics are disastrous, not just on our individual attention, but on our collective attention.
We really have to deal with this. Attention is our greatest superpower. If we’re losing it at the moment of these great crises—the crisis of democracy and the climate—we’re not going to be able to solve these problems. We need to get it back, and we absolutely can.