Reclaiming Our Focus and Attention With Johann Hari

by Ryan Goulart

We live in a 24/7 news cycle, where our phones and other screens are within reach at all times. We never have to be bored or lacking for entertainment — but can we focus our attention on any of it? Moreover, do the companies behind all this technology even want us to focus on anything other than their offerings? 

To answer these questions, I sat down with Johann Hari, whose books include “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — And How to Think Deeply Again.” He also is a keynote speaker at this year’s Evolve Conference

Johann says we’re in a societal crisis of attention and focus.

“The average office worker now focuses on only one task for less than 60 seconds,” Johann says. “For every one child who was identified with serious attention problems when I was 7 years old, there’s now 100 children who’ve been identified with that problem.”

On this episode of Making the Ideal Real, we explore why focus and attention are difficult, what’s causing this crisis, and what people can do to improve their focus. We also discuss why Johann believes this is a larger-scale, societal problem — not something individuals can fix alone.

Why Attention Is Required for Great Achievements

Only when Johann took a three-month vacation without his smartphone did he realize the impact of this technology on his attention and focus. Without his phone, he couldn’t scroll idly and endlessly. But the effect wasn’t just removing distraction. Rather, it’s what he gained. 

Within a short time, he felt his attention span returning, his ability to focus revived. Johann suddenly could read long books quickly again. He slept better and was less stressed.

We can’t all take three-month breaks whenever we want. But the broader lesson, Johann says, is to look at our environment and see what we can change. The stakes are high; everything great that humans have achieved is the result of harnessing our attention.

“When your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down, your ability to achieve your goals breaks down. Your ability to solve your problems breaks down. You feel worse about yourself because you actually are less competent,” Johann says. “When your ability to pay attention comes back, you regain your ability to achieve your goals, to solve your problems. You start to feel better about yourself because you regain your competence.”

Technology Is Only Part of the Problem

Smartphones and other technology can contribute to our struggles with focus and attention. Johann shares how he uses an app to block himself from certain apps or websites. But self-control is only one piece of the puzzle; we need collective action on a larger scale.

Johann offers the example of activists, often mothers, who launched a sustained campaign against leaded gasoline decades ago. This challenge couldn’t be solved individually. It required a movement of people working together for a common goal — changing the environment around what type of gasoline was sold versus individually deciding not to purchase leaded gas.

Johann frames this issue another way: the late historian Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism.” 

“You say, ‘Hey, guys, great news, I’ve got a solution to your problem. Just do these three little simple steps, and it’s all going to go away.’ It sounds like optimism, right?” Johann says. “But the truth is, it’s cruel. Because you’re setting the person up to fail, because you’re offering a solution that is not commensurate to the size of the problem.”

The alternative he proposes is “authentic optimism,” which is honest about the problem’s scope and looks to build appropriately sized solutions. 

With our crisis of attention and focus, the problem isn’t as simple as “don’t use smartphones” or “use phones less.” It’s the business model behind these phones that giant companies have figured out.

“We are the product they sell to, their real customers,” Johann says. “The advertisers, of course, want to know about you so they can target you, but they’re also learning all this incredibly intimate information about you for a much more important reason. They’re learning this stuff about you so they can figure out how to keep you scrolling.”

Instead of Blaming, Start Creating Change

To break the grip of technology companies and advertisers — to stop what he calls “surveillance capitalism” — Johann says we need to force a different business model that has different incentives, such as subscriptions or public ownership.

Johann favors a model like the BBC, which is publicly funded but independent of the government. While imperfect, it’s trusted, and it’s not incentivized by robbing us of our time and attention.

Regardless of the approach, he believes that collective action is required — and can succeed.

“We are the free citizens of democracies, hard-won democracies, and we own our own minds,” Johann says. “And together, we can take them back if we want to. But to get there, we’ve got to stop blaming ourselves and stop blaming our children and start blaming the forces that are doing this to us and taking on those forces.”

Johann believes less in making the ideal real and more in making the most of “the broken everyday nature of reality.” But in mending our broken selves, he urges people to start talking to each other, finding out how they can collectively regain our society’s focus and attention.

“There are lots of local goals,” he says, “and we can build up gradually to taking on these bigger forces.”

People in This Episode

Johann Hari: Website, “Stolen Focus” book

Transcript

Johann Hari:

I don’t think most people communicating about attention are leveling with people. I’m passionately in favor of these individual changes. They’ll make a real difference to your life. On their own, they’re not going to totally solve the problem. Because the truth is, at the moment, it’s like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day and then they’re leaning forward and going, “Hey, buddy, you should learn how to meditate, then you wouldn’t be scratching all the time.”

You want to go, “Screw you! I’ll learn to meditate. That’s really valuable, but you need to stop pouring this damn itching powder on me,” right? The truth is, this didn’t happen because you failed to have good habits, or I failed to have good habits, or our kids failed to have good habits. This happened because of very big structural forces. And ultimately, we need to go on the offense against those forces, and that is something that we can do as individuals. Now, we can’t do it as isolated individuals, but we can do it by banding together collectively.

Ryan Goulart:

That’s Johann Hari, author of “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — And How to Think Deeply Again.” We’re talking about attention. I’m Ryan Goulart, and you are Making the Ideal Real. I have with me today Johann Hari, author of “Stolen Focus.” 

Welcome to Making the Ideal Real.

Johann Hari:

Hey, Ryan, I’m really glad to be with you. I just want to apologize to your listeners in advance. I’m insanely jet-lagged. Until I turned 40, I thought jet lag was a myth. I’m now 44 years old. When I land in any different time zone, I’m essentially like a 100-year-old man. I just came back from Japan to Britain, so this may well be my last interview because I might die in the course of doing it. But assuming I survive, I’m very excited to talk to you.

Ryan Goulart:

Very exciting. First question, listeners know this, what does making the ideal real mean to you?

Johann Hari:

It’s funny because I don’t really believe in the ideal, or I don’t believe in it as an achievable thing. There’s a famous thing that Oscar Wilde said once, he said, “A map of the world without utopia on it isn’t worth having.” I love Oscar Wilde, but I don’t agree with him. I think everything is broken and imperfect. I’m much more with Leonard Cohen. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. I think in a way everything’s flawed, and that’s the point of it. I’m much less interested in the ideal than I am in the broken, everyday nature of reality.

I was just in Japan, and they had this really interesting form of art there. It began centuries ago. It’s basically a form of porcelain where when a piece of porcelain breaks, they fix it, the crack with gold. The idea behind it is that actually it’s the cracks that make things beautiful, and that, actually, far from hiding the crack in a piece of porcelain and pretending it’s not there or throwing it away, you actually draw attention to the crack with gold. And to me, that’s a much more interesting way of thinking about things than thinking about ideals.

It’s like this thing is broken, and that’s why we value it, because that’s true to everyone. We’re all broken. We’re all cracked. We’re all flawed. There are no ideal people, and the people who are held up as ideals are probably the people you should be most suspicious of. That’s thing the British writer George Orwell said, “You should always be suspicious of saints.” That’s my first thought when I hear the question. I apply it more tightly to topics I’ve written about, if you like, but that’s my first thought.

Ryan Goulart:

It’s a good one. You wrote a book on stolen focus. It’s not your only book. You’ve written a lot of other books. It’s the one that I’ve been able to have the privilege of reading and really enjoyed the conversation that you have in the book. I want to play with that notion of brokenness and attention, because people’s attention is broken, too. There’s a myth about what it means to be focused all of the time. Just give our listeners just a high-level information on why you felt so compelled to write this book on stolen focus and where the state of attention is right now globally.

Johann Hari:

Well, we’re living in a huge crisis of attention of focus. The average office worker now focuses on only one task for less than 60 seconds. For every one child who was identified with serious attention problems when I was 7 years old, there’s now 100 children who’ve been identified with that problem. I could see this happening to huge numbers of people around me. I could see it happening to myself, right?

I could feel that things that require deep focus that are so important to me, like reading books, watching movies, having proper long conversations, were just getting harder and harder. With every year that passed, it’s like they were more and more like running up a down escalator. You know what I mean? I could still do them, but they were getting harder. I wanted to understand why. There was a moment with a young person I really loved in my life, particularly became clear to me that I can talk about, if you like, but I thought, well, I need to understand why this is happening.

I ended up going on this big journey all over the world from Moscow to Minneapolis, your town, to Miami, to Melbourne, not just to cities that begin with the letter M. I interviewed over 200 of the leading experts on attention and focus, people who’ve studied different aspects of this. What I learned from them is that there’s scientific evidence for 12 factors that can make your attention better or can make your attention worse. They range quite widely. Some of them are kind of obvious, some aspects of our technology. It’s not all of our tech. 

Some of them are things I’d never even thought about. The way we eat is really affecting our ability to focus and pay attention. The way our kids’ schools are designed is really affecting their focus, the way our offices work. There’s a huge array of factors. What becomes really clear when you look at this is that your attention did not collapse. Your attention has been stolen from you by some very big and powerful forces. But once you understand these forces, you can begin to deal with them to some degree as individuals and to some degree as a wider society.

The key to finding our way through this is to understand why it happened to us and begin to actually solve the deep, underlying reasons, because up to now what we’ve been doing is blaming ourselves. I blame myself. I was like, well, there’s something wrong with you. Why aren’t you strong enough? Why can’t you just resist these temptations? We get angry with our kids. What’s wrong with them? Why are they just staring at these screens all the time? Why won’t they go outside and play?

But there’s nothing wrong with you, and there’s nothing wrong with me, and there’s nothing wrong with our children. There’s something wrong with the way we’re living. Once you understand that, it creates a very different conversation about how we solve this problem.

Ryan Goulart:

Yeah, it’s fascinating to think about just all those details that you just shared of where the state of our attention is, and it has been designed in a way to manipulate our attention in this attention economy that we live in. Tech is the simplest and yet hardest one to understand because it’s one that we use every day, and it’s visible. It’s a physical manifestation of our attention being stolen with our, whatever, iPhone or phone we use. It was really insightful for me. I mean, your ability to take yourself out of the land of technology in what you wrote in the book and learn, well, I’m not going to give it away, but I’d love for you to just talk about it. Because I think it’s always something like every fast-paced worker who’s constantly emailing or texting or on a phone all the time, it’s just like it’s an appendage now for the individual to live with. How was your experience of just shutting it all down? What did that feel like to just go into isolation away from the 2,000?

Johann Hari:

Well, early on in the journey, before I’d interviewed all these experts, I was pretty sure why my attention was getting worse. I basically had three stories in my head that overlapped. The first was I thought, well, you’re lacking willpower about myself. You don’t have enough willpower. You’re not strong enough. The second story was, well, someone invented the smartphone and that screwed me over. And the third was I thought, well, you’re getting older, right? I just turned 40.

Those things coming together were why I couldn’t pay attention. It seemed to me, nothing I could do about getting older, but the other two I thought, well, the solution to this is really obvious. The problem is I don’t have enough willpower and the smartphone screwed me over. I’m going to use my willpower to separate myself from the smartphone. 

I now realize my way of thinking about this was really oversimplified, but that’s how I thought at the time. I was in this lucky position. One of my previous books got made into a big Hollywood film, so I had some money. I thought, well, screw it. Why am I sitting here staring at a screen feeling miserable? I’m going to go out. I’m going to abandon this. I went away for three months to a place called Provincetown in Cape Cod, and I had no laptop that could get online, and I had no smartphone. I just thought, I’m out of here. I went for three months, and lots of things happened to me in Provincetown. But for me, I guess the most shocking was how quickly and dramatically my attention came back. My attention went back to being as good as it had been when I was 17.

I read “War and Peace” in like four days. I was stunned by how much it improved. I later realized actually it wasn’t just because of the smartphone. All sorts of things changed. I was sleeping much more. I was eating much better than I normally did. All sorts of things that were going on there. I was much less stressed. I remember at the end of those three months just thinking — I remember going to — if you go to the edge of Provincetown, there’s like a cove. I remember sitting there and looking back over Provincetown.

I hadn’t left Provincetown for the whole three months and just thinking, well, I’m never going to go back to the way I lived before. Why would I do that? This is crazy. This has been so much better. I got the ferry back to Boston, and I got my phone back from my friend I’d given it to, my friend Charlene. And within two months, I was 80% back to where I’d been before. I went into this spiral of recrimination. I was like, oh, what’s wrong with you? It was so good.

And then I realized, oh, one person put it to me really well, a great guy called Dr. James Williams, who had been at the heart of the Silicon Valley machine that’s harming our attention. I’m sure we’ll talk about that more. But he said to me, “The mistake you’ve made, Johann, is it’s like you thought the solution to air pollution is for you personally to wear a gas mask.” Now, I’m not against gas masks. If I lived in Beijing, I’d wear a gas mask. It’s not a solution to air pollution. The solution to air pollution is to reduce the amount of pollution in the air.

And in the same way, OK, maybe a tiny number of very privileged people can exempt themselves from this for a short period of time, but that’s not the answer. The answer is to fix the problem in the environment, which sounds — I remember when James first said that to me, I was in Moscow where he was living, because his wife worked for the World Health Organization. I went to see him there. This is obviously before the invasion of Ukraine, and now we can’t go to Moscow. But oh, well, we can, but it’d be a very bad idea. I remember thinking, oh, well, how would we ever do that? And then of course, I went on the journey with the experts and I learned that there are places that are already doing that that I went to, from France to New Zealand, that there are places building the environmental solutions. 

Although Provincetown was amazing and one of the best three months of my life, and I’m about to do that again later this year, I’m going away for three months and I’m going to do the same thing, that’s not the answer, right? It’s a lovely holiday, a lovely vacation for a few people who can do it, but I mean, basically no one can do that. None of my relatives could do that. No one could afford to do that. But more importantly, that’s not a sustainable answer in the long term.

Anyway, I would just say the reason why it’s so important, and this did become very clear to me in Provincetown, is I would say to anyone listening, think about anything you’ve ever achieved in your life that you’re proud of, whether it’s starting a business, being a good parent, learning to play the guitar, whatever it is, that thing that you’re proud of required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. When your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down, your ability to achieve your goals breaks down.

Your ability to solve your problems breaks down. You feel worse about yourself because you actually are less competent. When your ability to pay attention comes back, you regain your ability to achieve your goals, to solve your problems. You start to feel better about yourself because you regain your competence. Attention is at the heart of all human achievement. Doesn’t matter whether it’s sporting achievement, literary achievement, musical achievement, anything any of us achieve requires sustained focus.

I realized, God, this is really at the heart of everything, everything worth doing, and I really felt that when I was in Provincetown, and I really felt that getting that back is what’s so important, and that’s what impelled me on the rest of the journey for the book.

Ryan Goulart:

Hey, listeners, Ryan here. You heard Johann Hari talk about attention, and one of the things that we’ve learned at the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations is that focus and attention has a lot to do about paying attention to when you’re not focused and coming back than it does about being focused all of the time. If you can close the gap between being focused and when you’re not and coming back to focus, that’s where the game is won. 

Ryan Goulart:

I love what you just said with that sense of attention being central to everything that we do and that level of clarity that comes with it, I’m sure there’s so many different levels of attention that you’ve learned about through the researchers that you’ve connected with, the other people that have had different experiences, whether it be what one might call flow of when time just ceases to track and you’re just all of a sudden immersed in this particular task.

One of the things that I’d be curious to learn from you about, with the role of attention and some of the researchers that you just articulated of it, what can an individual do? Because I think the environmental forces that are out there oftentimes feel — like the social media component that plays a role in our dopamine hit for looking at social media or picking up our phone. What can an individual do to help themselves think a little clearer as they want to navigate life?

Johann Hari:

For all of the 12 factors that are harming our attention that I write about in “Stolen Focus,” there are two levels at which we’ve got to deal with them. I think of them as defense and offense. There are loads of things that we can do immediately as isolated individuals to protect ourselves and our children to some degree. 

I’ll give you an example of one. I’ve got something called a kSafe. It’s very simple. It’s a plastic safe. You take off the lid. You put in your phone. You put on the lid. You turn the dial at the top. You push the button, and it locks your phone away for anything between five minutes and a whole day. I use that three hours a day to do my writing. You can install on your phone and your laptop an app called Freedom, which will either cut you off from specific websites. Let’s say that you’re obsessed with Instagram. You can say, “Don’t let me go on Instagram for the next two hours,” or it can cut you off from the entire internet for however long you tell it to up to 24 hours.

If you try and click on the website once you’ve set it up, it’ll just say, “You’ve been set free. Go and do something else.” 

I go through dozens and dozens of things like that we can all do immediately in the book. But I want to be really honest with people because I don’t think most people communicating about attention are leveling with people. I’m passionately in favor of these individual changes. They’ll make a real difference to your life. On their own, they’re not going to totally solve the problem. Because the truth is, at the moment, it’s like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day, and then they’re leaning forward and going, “Hey, buddy, you should learn how to meditate, then you wouldn’t be scratching all the time.” And you want to go, “Screw you. I’ll learn to meditate. That’s really valuable, but you need to stop pouring this damn itching powder on me,” right?

The truth is, this didn’t happen because you failed to have good habits, or I failed to have good habits, or our kids failed to have good habits. This happened because of very big structural forces. And ultimately, we need to go on the offense against those forces, and that is something that we can do as individuals. Now, we can’t do it as isolated individuals, but we can do it by banding together collectively. And that can sound very fancy and abstract, but I’ll give you an example of a time that happened in the recent past, which has massively improved the attention of everyone listening. How old are you, Ryan?

Ryan Goulart:

I’m 35.

Johann Hari:

Right, so you’ll just remember this. I’m 44. I’m a bit older than you, so I remember it. When we were kids, probably when you were very young, but when I was, I can remember it, the only form of gasoline you could get for a while in the U.S. for many years, for 80 years leading up to our childhoods, was leaded gasoline. I can remember the smell of it. I can remember my mom putting it in her little Mini. It was discovered by scientists that exposure to lead is really bad for people’s brains and particularly bad for children’s ability to focus and pay attention.

If it was in gasoline, of course, it was in the air through the fumes. Every single person was breathing in huge amounts of lead, and it was really damaging kids’ brains. What happened is a group of ordinary moms, it was overwhelmingly what at the time were called housewives, starting in the 1970s, banded together and said, “Well, why are we allowing this? Why are we allowing the lead industry and the gasoline industry to screw up our kids’ brains?” It’s really important to notice what those moms didn’t say.

They didn’t say, “So let’s ban cars. Let’s ban gasoline,” just like none of us are saying, “Let’s get rid of technology and go back and let’s all join the Amish.” No disrespect to any Amish who are listening. You are cheating if you are. No, what they said is, let’s get rid of the specific form of gasoline that’s harming kids’ brains and move to a different form of gasoline that won’t do that. What happened? These moms fought like hell for their kids. They fought for a ban on leaded gasoline and its replacement by unleaded gasoline.

It followed the classic pattern of all successful political movements that was described by Mahatma Gandhi: First, they ignored them, then they laughed at them, then they fought them, then they won. As everyone listening knows, ain’t no more leaded gasoline. In fact, Venezuela just became the last country in the whole world to ban it. There’s no more leaded gasoline as a result. The CDC, the Center for Disease Control, has calculated that the average American child is three to five IQ points higher than they would’ve been had we not banned leaded gasoline.

Now, I totally understand why you frame the question as, well, what can we do as individuals because I can’t deal with this big stuff? But the truth is, we can as individuals deal with the big stuff if we band together. You could well have been a mom in 1979 who said, “Well, what can I do to protect my child because I can’t stop there being leaded gasoline?” Well, actually, you as a mom could stop there being leaded gasoline by banding together with all the other moms and some dads as well and some people who didn’t have children to say, “Let’s deal with this problem.”

Sometimes it’s framed, I think, wrongly as — I mean, I do this framing as well. I understand we have to talk in language, but there’s the stuff you can do as an individual versus the collective solution, but that’s not the way to think about it, because the collective solutions will only happen if we as individuals band together and fight for them. I can talk in very practical ways about how we can do that, about the 12 factors that are currently harming our attention. I know that can be daunting, and sometimes people just want you to go, “What are the five little tweaks to my habit that I can make?”

But the truth is, there’s a concept that was invented by a historian who sadly died recently called Lauren Berlant called “cruel optimism.” Cruel optimism is where you take a really big problem like obesity, depression, attention problems, and you say, “Hey, guys, great news, I’ve got a solution to your problem. Just do these three little simple steps, and it’s all going to go away.” It sounds like optimism, right?

But the truth is it’s cruel because you’re setting the person up to fail because you’re offering a solution that is not commensurate to the size of the problem, and then they fail and they feel like there’s something wrong with them because they’re like, “Well, I did the thing you’re meant to do. And look, here I am and I’ve still got this problem. There must be something wrong with me.” The alternative to cruel optimism is not pessimism. I’m opposed to pessimism. We shouldn’t be pessimistic.

The alternative to cruel optimism is authentic optimism, where you truthfully explain to people what’s causing the problem, and you build solutions that are big enough to meet the problem. Now, we can absolutely do that with the 12 factors that are harming our attention that I write about in “Stolen Focus.” I explain how in the book. I can give you lots of examples, and I went to places that have begun to do that, like I say, from New Zealand to France.

But we’re not going to solve the problem if we don’t level about how big it is and how big the causes are. We’ve just got to level with people about that.

Ryan Goulart:

If we were to think about just the role, again, technology is one of those things that is so easy to think about, and some of those solutions can be like apps on a phone to help cut off different social media elements. As one of those things that we have to get more on the offensive with, the question I’m asking is, what is the role technology plays in our attention being stolen with that social media engine that is constantly churning and grabbing our minds?

Johann Hari:

Yeah, I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley interviewing people who designed key aspects of the world in which we now live, and the first thing that struck me was how incredibly guilty they feel about what they’ve done. I mentioned before a guy called Dr. James Williams who I interviewed in Moscow. He worked at the heart of Google, and one day he was speaking at a tech conference where the audience were literally the people who designed the stuff your kids are using today.

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 put up their hand. And not long afterwards, he quit and became, I would argue, the most important philosopher of attention in the world at the moment. It was fascinating talking to people because we often think, oh, the problem is the creation of the technology, but actually the problem is narrower than that. The problem isn’t the existence of phones and laptops. The problem is something much more specific. 

Obviously, I was asking a lot of people about this, and they had to keep explaining it to me. For some reason, it took me a long time to get my head around this. They kept explaining to me, let’s say you open TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram now. Please don’t if you did. Those apps immediately begin to make money out of you in two ways. The first way is really obvious, you see advertising. OK, everyone listening knows how that works.

Second way is much more important. Everything you do on these apps is scanned and sorted by their artificial intelligence algorithms to figure out who you are and what makes you tick. Let’s say that you’ve ever indicated, including in your so-called private messages, that you like, I don’t know, Donald Trump, Bette Midler, and you told your mom you just bought some diapers. It’s going to figure out if you like Donald Trump, you’re probably conservative. If you like Bette Midler and you’re a man, you’re probably gay — no disrespect to any straight men who like Bette Midler; I don’t really believe you. And you bought diapers. OK, you’ve got a baby. 

If you’ve been on these apps for any amount of time, they know tens of thousands of things like this about you, and they’re gathering that information for a few reasons. One is to sell that information to advertisers. You are not the customer for these apps. They’ve got customer service departments. We can’t phone them because we’re not the customers.

We are the product they sell to their real customers, the advertisers, and the advertisers, of course, want to know about you so they can target you, but they’re also learning all this incredibly intimate information about you for a much more important reason. They’re learning this stuff about you so they can figure out how to keep you scrolling for a very simple reason. Every time you pick up the app and begin to scroll, they begin to make money because you see ads. The longer you scroll, the more money they make, because the longer you scroll, the more ads you see. Every time your kid opens the app and begins to scroll, they begin to make money. The longer your kids scroll, the more money they make. Every time you close the app, that revenue stream disappears.

All of these geniuses in Silicon Valley, all this AI, all these algorithms, all of it when it is applied to social media is geared towards one thing and one thing only: figuring out how do we get you to open the app as often as possible and scroll as often as possible. That’s it. That’s all they care about.

Just like the head of KFC may be a perfectly nice person, but all he cares about in his professional capacity is how often did you go to KFC this week, and how big was the bucket you bought? Your obesity problem is no concern of his. All these companies care about is how often do you open the app and how long do you scroll. They are unbelievably good at figuring out increasingly sophisticated methods to get you to do that. 

Obviously, I was learning this from the people at the heart of it, and it can feel very daunting. You come here and go, “Oh shit. Are we just trapped in the matrix then?” It can be very overwhelming. But I kept asking the people at the heart of it, “OK, is there an equivalent of the lead in the lead paint here? How do we put this right?” Again, they kept explaining the answer to me, and it took me quite a long time to get it. I’ll give you an example. A guy called Aza Raskin, who invented a key part of how many websites work — his dad, Jeff Raskin, invented the Apple Macintosh for Steve Jobs — Aza said to me, “Yeah, you want to know what the equivalent of the lead and the lead paint is? It’s very simple. The equivalent is you’ve got to ban the current business model for social media.” I’m thinking, what the hell is he talking about? He explained it to me. There’s essentially three ways you can fund social media. The model we have at the moment, the kind of fancy technical term for it is “surveillance capitalism.” It’s a term that was coined by the brilliant professor Shoshana Zuboff, who’s at Harvard.

Surveillance capitalism is pretty simple. You seem to get Facebook, TikTok, Twitter for free. You don’t pay anything upfront. But in return, they surveil you, they are monitoring you all the time, and they hack and invade your attention. That’s one model. You seem to get it for free, but you pay for it with your attention and, I would argue, our democracy, but we can talk about that later if you want. That’s one model. Aza said you’ve just got to ban that. That’s like lead in the lead paint.

That model is premised on hacking and invading your attention. It requires your attention to be degraded. It requires the building of a machinery, a very sophisticated machinery, to screw with your attention. As we can all see, it’s worked incredibly well, in addition with the 11 other factors that I write about in “Stolen Focus.” But when he said to me, “Well, ban that,” I’m thinking, well, OK, let’s imagine we do that. Let’s imagine we ban surveillance capitalism. The next day I open TikTok or Facebook, would it just say, “Sorry, guys, we’ve gone fishing.” He said, “Of course, not.” What would happen is they would have to move to a different business model, and almost everyone listening to this podcast will have some experience. In fact, I would imagine literally everyone will have experience of the two alternative business models. 

The first alternative is very simple: subscription. We all know how Netflix works. You pay a certain amount every month. In return, you get access to the product. The key thing about if we think about a subscription-based model for social media is all the incentives change.

At the moment, the incentives for the people designing all these apps are, “How do we hack and invade Ryan in order to keep him scrolling as long as possible?” because that’s how they make money. But in a subscription model, suddenly they’re not saying, “How do we hack and invade Ryan to screw with his attention and keep him scrolling?” Suddenly we’re like, “Oh, what does Ryan want out of life?” Ryan’s now our customer. Ryan’s not the product we sell to the real customer, the advertiser.”

Now Ryan’s our customer. What does Ryan want? It turns out Ryan feels good when he meets up with people offline and spends time with them. OK, let’s design our app to maximize him spending time with people offline, meeting up with his friends, meeting up with people who have similar interests. Very easy to design the app to do that. My friends in Silicon Valley could do it tomorrow. Do it in half an hour. Well, half an hour, for exaggeration. They could do it in 24 hours, to be sure. But they won’t do that unless the incentives are right. 

Or, think about the third potential business model, which everyone listening has memory of, think about the sewers. You own the sewers in Minneapolis along with everyone else who lives in Minneapolis. Before I owned the sewers in London with the fellow citizens of London, before we had sewers, we had shit in the streets. People got cholera. It was terrible. We all pay to build and maintain the sewers together, and we all own the sewers together, right?

Now, it might be that like we own the sewage pipes together because we don’t want to get cholera, we might want to own the information pipes together because we’re getting the equivalent of cholera for our attention, for our politics, and that’s a disaster. Now, you want to make sure that machinery was independent of government. We can all imagine, we certainly don’t want the president, whoever he may be, to control the social media. It would have to be independent government.

A good model, I think, is the BBC. Every British person who owns a television pays a fee to the BBC. It’s independent of the government. They work for us, not for the government. It’s the most trusted media institution in the whole world. It’s not perfect, but it is the most trusted media institution in the whole world. Once you ban surveillance capitalism, you can then look at these alternative ways of funding it. But if you don’t change the incentives, you can’t deal with the problem.

For as long as the longer you scroll, the more money they make, they will just get better and better at building machines that hack and invade our attention. The way I think of it is at the moment, we’re in a race. On the one side, you’ve got all of these 12 factors that are harming and invading our attention, and they are poised to become better and better. 

Paul Graham, one of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley, said in an interview, not with me, with someone else, the world is on course to be more addictive in the next 40 years than it was in the last 40. Think about how much more addictive TikTok is than Facebook. Now imagine the next crack-like iteration of TikTok. That’s one side of the race. On the other side of the race, there’s got to be a movement of all of us saying, “No, you don’t get to do that to me. You don’t get to do that to my brain. You don’t get to do that to my children. Yes, we choose a life with plenty of technology, but we choose a life where we can think deeply, where we can read books, where our children can play outside.”

If we want that, we can get it. That’s perfectly achievable. I’ve seen how we do it. I’ve seen it being put into practice all over the world. The science of it is very clear, but you don’t get what you don’t fight for. Of course, I mean peacefully fight for, but it requires a real shift in psychology. We need to realize we are not medieval peasants begging at the court of King Musk and King Zuckerberg for a few little crumbs of attention from their table. We are the free citizens of democracies, hard-won democracies, and we own our own minds. And together, we can take them back if we want to. But to get there, we’ve got to stop blaming ourselves and stop blaming our children and stop blaming the forces that are doing this to us and taking on those forces.

Ryan Goulart:

Love it. Yeah, this is super fascinating. As I’m listening to you talk, and I’m sure our listeners are too, just rattling through I’m like, “OK, well, how many times did I pick up my phone today, and how much money did they make off me today?”

Johann Hari:

I think the figure is the average person — it’s in the book. I think the average person touches their phone, it’s something like 2,000 times a day, and that’s the pre-COVID figures. It’d probably be higher now.

Ryan Goulart:

I just want to close it out with just coming back to how you answered the “making the ideal real, what does that mean to you?” question, and that we’re all broken, but we do have hints of gold in us. What can we do to further help our banding together, if you will, of let’s get this going? I want to feel calm. What are some things that we can make our broken selves feel a little bit more shiny and be proud of that?

Johann Hari:

Well, I would say it helps to have an immediate local goal that you can achieve. I’ll give you a very simple one, get cell phones out of schools. I went to schools like Berkeley High that just banned cell phones. There is now increasing evidence from Spain and Norway, very good research in both Spain and Norway, that this has massive improvements in children’s achievement, their enjoyment of school, their enjoyment of life, their social skills. It led to a really big decrease in bullying.

If you’ve got kids, talk to all the other parents. I guarantee you, you are surrounded by parents who are worried about their kids’ attention, especially after what we went through in the last two and a half years. Band together all the other parents and ban cell phones from schools. Kids should not have them out ever in school, ever. I would choose a local goal like that. There are lots of local goals, and we can build up gradually to taking on these bigger forces.

Ryan Goulart:

Love it. Thank you so much for your time.

Johann Hari:

Oh, a pleasure. I’m excited to meet you in Minneapolis. I’ve been to Minneapolis many times. Actually, this time I’m secretly planning to sneak away and go to Prince’s house [crosstalk 00:35:11]

Ryan Goulart:

There you go.

Johann Hari:

Very excited. I have spent too much time in the Mall of the Americas. I’m very excited. Hooray every day.

Ryan Goulart:

Very nice. Well, see you in two weeks.

Johann Hari:

Woo! I meant to say, all my publishers tell me that anyone who wants to know any more information about the book can go to stolenfocusbook.com, where you can listen to audio of loads of the people we’ve talked about and other stuff.

Ryan Goulart:

Awesome. Thank you very much. As we wrap this episode, we’re committed to helping you make the ideal real. If you found this program helpful, share it and help someone else make their ideal real, too. Until next time, for think2perform, I’m Ryan Goulart. Take care.

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