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Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari: a superb must-read

January was something else – mild and gloomy – but now a polar vortex has descended. Yesterday Ruth and I went for lunch at Annie’s in the Beach and walked down to the lake only a stone’s throw away. It was minus 27 with wind chill; the cold and wind burned our skin, and we nearly froze. Today much milder and snowing. It’s winter. 

The sparrows are busy at the feeder, though. The cat is washing herself, as usual. I am sitting here looking out there, as always. 

Finished a most excellent, important, and, I hope, life-changing book by Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: why you can’t pay attention – and how to think deeply again. His premise is that democracy is in danger because the tech giants have thrown all their resources into keeping us distracted and unfocussed. Citizens who can’t focus can’t think deeply about anything and instead turn to simplistic authoritarian answers. That the ethos of economic growth above all leads to a culture of frantic overwork and lack of sleep, again, destroying our brains. 

He spends a great deal of time on the future of children in this environment, not just the attacks on kids’ focus with phones and video games but the degradation of food, the rigidity of the school system, the lack of essential free play time. We diagnose a huge number of kids with ADHD and treat them with drugs instead of looking at why they might be restless and distracted. (Though my grandson with ADHD was that way from birth, moving constantly even in the womb. When he emerged, he’d somersaulted so much, there was a double knot in the umbilical cord; amazing he survived. Some ADHD is genetic. But much, Hari shows, is simply children whose needs are not being met.)

He points out that we blame ourselves for the splintering of our energy and focus – for wasting time on FB and IG, eating junk, being tired. But there are enormous forces beyond our control pushing these things on us. Thousands of engineers are designing ways to make sure we don’t put down our phones; the longer we stay on them, the more money they make. The food industry, like drug dealers, pushes ultra-processed food full of dyes, sugar, and chemicals. His final chapter is on how we must band together to fight these forces, that citizen armies — environmentalists, feminists, those struggling for civil right and gay rights — have brought huge changes in how we treat women, people of colour, gay people. We banned lead paint and smoking in many places; we used to smoke on airplanes! We need to regulate tech giants to work for us rather than allowing them to colonize us. It can be done. 

Of course, after finishing the book and swearing I’d regulate my social media time, I did a “quick check” of FB and Twitter and other sites this morning and surfaced after an hour. Will not blame myself but will work to change that. It’s not that we must disconnect completely; we need to learn how to use these tools rather than being used by them. And to join organizations fighting for change.

Gearing up for So True: eight powerful storytellers plus me. Very proud of the group and their work. It will be a blast of warmth in the midst of our frigid season. 

Here is how I intend to spend at least some of today: by the fire, cat on lap, focussed. It doesn’t get better than that.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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