Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again
By Johann Hari
How Technology Is Creating a World Without Choices and How to Fight Back
By Jacob Ward
Johann Hari’s book “Stolen Focus” and Jacob Ward’s book “The Loop” discuss how technology and modernity are negatively and chronically affecting our brains and behavior. They focus on the individual experience of living in this moment, and how modern technology is limiting our choices and personal notions of freedom and consciousness. These well-researched surveys draw attention to important concerns while avoiding simplistic self-improvement recommendations.
In “The Loop,” Ward, an NBC technology correspondent, argues that artificial intelligence in particular is not only predicting our actions but increasingly causing our actions, narrowing our scope of options and imprisoning us in an automated existence.
Ward describes three nested metaphorical loops. The first loop is inside us. He gives a fascinating survey of the known spectrum of human biases that get in our way of thinking through things, even when we convince ourselves we have. The second loop is composed of technology automatically poking at our bruises, triggering actions by playing on the frailties described in the first loop, such as a tendency toward risky behavior like gambling. Finally, the outermost layer describes how we are prodded not only into short-term behavior by such technology, but into something approaching global sheeplike behavior, utterly determined by conditioning.
For background, Ward offers a short history of A.I., concentrating on how the people who own and deploy the algorithms measure their success. He also rebuts the Silicon Valley-esque assumption that A.I. will always do good. Recent examples from police usage of pretrial risk assessments and facial recognition should make us think twice, as Ward suggests, about trusting A.I. implicitly. Then again, those examples suffer from yet another human bias, namely the actor-observer bias, which leads most people to think they won’t be targeted by such systems anytime soon.
So Ward is fighting an uphill battle, and although he tries to make it feel real, not all of his examples work. For instance, he uses the well-known story of Dr. Dao on United Airlines Flight 3411 to illustrate how people are psychologically hemmed in by A.I. The airline wanted extra seats for crew members of another flight, so it offered $400, then $800, for someone to change flights, but nobody took the offer. (Why not $1,200? $4,000?) They changed tack, using an opaque algorithm to choose Dr. Dao as the person who would lose his seat. When he refused to go, he was badly injured in his removal by the Chicago Aviation Police.
The author wants us to think this is proof of the Loop closing in on us, that the algorithm was critical in removing choices from us and seeming inevitable. But I don’t buy this example as an algorithmic harm, even while I’m interested in why it chose Dr. Dao. The damage to Dr. Dao came from a combination of the temporary suspension of normal social functioning that characterizes every airplane flight and good old-fashioned police power. Nothing different would have resulted, I’d guess, if the person had been randomly chosen by the head flight attendant.
Another place the Loop appears, in Ward’s view, is in a system called CoParenter, an app used by divorced parents that offers suggestions to keep the tone polite and arrangements formal. The author worries children will have long-term consequences observing their parents bypassing actual conversation in favor of automated civility, but we have to contrast and compare that with the violence and abuse that the children might not be observing.
“Stolen Focus” addresses a wider range of causes but for a single target of concern: namely, how we are losing focus. Hari breaks down the many causes of our lack of attention into two categories: too much and too little. Too much information, stress, surveillance and manipulation, and ADHD diagnoses. Not enough sleep, novel reading, navel gazing and nutritious food. He doesn’t declare algorithms or even digital technology as the single culprit, since “information overload” has been creeping up on us and impairing our focus for some time.
Each potential cause is interrogated in its own chapter, and they all contain interviews with researchers in the chosen topic. Some of the chapters are inspiring, such as the one that focuses on the concept of flow, the type of concentration that leads to an almost hypnotic state, where time melts away and thought is inhabited. Even just focusing on focus for this much time is useful, and ends up giving the reader a novel and worthwhile way of measuring our quality of attention.
Since the author prioritizes research, it’s fair to quibble a bit about data. He spends a lot of time talking about ADHD diagnoses (and medications) proliferating, but it’s not clear if that’s because it’s a new problem or just a newly noticed way to deal with an old problem. Another example relates to sleep. It’s not clear that we’re getting less sleep than we used to on average, especially since the pandemic started. Of course that doesn’t mean we’re sleeping soundly, and the shared grief and terror of living through a pandemic might well have decreased the restoration of even a longer night’s sleep.
That brings us to the blind spot of “Stolen Focus.” It seems to have been written largely in the Before Times. So the sense of being zonked out on Zoom, which has been the single largest contribution to my personal feeling of having no focus, isn’t addressed, although perhaps the research is just now getting started.
What both books get right is that the problems they surface are systemic, and that the vast majority of solutions proffered consist of individualistic, self-helpish advice that can be followed only by the privileged. Indeed, at the intersection of both books sits the Stanford M.B.A. and tech entrepreneur Nir Eyal, who has written two books. The first, called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” has been used by scores of companies to — you guessed it — make our technology habits more addictive. The second, printed with a similar canary yellow cover, is called “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” in which he gives individuals advice for maintaining focus in a world of distractions. They might as well have been a two-volume set on how to build a for-profit system that is so annoying, addictive and distracting that people will pay you to teach them how to bypass it.
As both authors make clear, Nir Eyal and people like him — the well-paid architects of this system — won’t be shamed and won’t change.
If we’re looking for hope, I have two suggestions. The first is that we consider what transcendence might look like, if resistance is futile. It’s a tough time for kids nowadays, but it’s plausible that our young people are savvier, more critical and better at focusing under extremely distracting conditions than their parents. Let’s hope so.
Second, although all the issues these books confront are real, they are part of a much larger problem, which is capitalism itself, or at least the incentives it creates for folks like Nir Eyal. To address that would mean turning to even bigger, less personal dilemmas, like the way automation is quickly replacing entry-level jobs, or private equity is using automated eviction algorithms to optimize the profit on their hundreds of thousands of homes, creating a homeless and jobless underclass in its wake. Runaway technology is here, and in many ways it’s worse than a lack of focus or will — but if we can connect the two, then perhaps we have a chance to improve our future.
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