How to Reclaim Focus in the Age of Distraction | Johann Hari [Best of]

Johann HariI’ve come to believe that the quality and richness of our lives is, in no small part, determined by the depth and quality of our attention. If it’s massively distracted, perpetually spinning out, and focused on negativity, that will also largely be the state of our lives, regardless of the actual objective circumstance of our lives. And, that is where we go in a powerful way with my guest today, Johann Hari. 

Johann is a writer and journalist, whose work appears in everywhere from the New York Times, Le Monde, to The Guardian and many other newspapers and media outlets. His TED talks and NowThis viral video have been viewed almost 100 million times, and his work has been praised by a broad range of people, from Oprah Winfrey to Noam Chomsky. He was the Executive Producer of the Oscar-nominated film “The United States vs Billie Holiday” and of a forthcoming eight-part TV series starring Samuel L Jackson. And following an incident with his Godson a few years back, he decided to turn his attention to the topic of attention, what attention actually is, how it affects us our mental and physical health, relationships, careers, and lives, what our ability to either harness or lose control of it is doing to us, and how our world, technology and global enterprise have built models designed to hijack our attention not in the name of the betterment of our lives or of humanity, but rather for their own good. Johann goes deep into his research and ideas in the groundbreaking book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again, and we explore what he calls an attentional pathogenic culture, how it’s making life both harder and sadder, and, importantly, what we can do about it to reclaim our attention and, in doing so, our lives.

You can find Johann at: Instagram | Website | Episode Transcript

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Episode Transcript:

Johann Hari: [00:00:00] We need an attention movement to reclaim our minds, and I absolutely believe we can do that. We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to accept our minds and our children’s minds being diminished in the way that they are right now. These are relatively recent changes. They are not acts of God. They’re not magic. They’re things that have been done by humans, and they’re things that can be undone by humans.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:24] Hey, so long-time listeners know I’m a little bit obsessed with the area of attention I have come to believe over a period of years that the quality and richness of our lives is, in no small part, determined by the depth and quality of our attention. If it’s massively distracted, perpetually spinning out, focused on negativity, that will also largely be the state of our lives, regardless of the actual objective circumstance of our lives. And that is where we’re going in today’s powerful conversation with my guest, Johann Hari. So Johann is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared everywhere from The New York Times to Le Monde, The Guardian and many other newspapers and media outlets. His TED talks and now this viral video have been viewed something like 100 million times, and his work has been praised by a broad range of people, from Oprah Winfrey to Noam Chomsky. He was the executive producer of the Oscar-nominated film The United States versus Billie Holiday, and following an incident with his godson a few years back, he decided to turn his attention to the topic of attention, exploring what attention actually is, how it affects us, our mental and physical health, our relationships, careers and lives, and what our ability to either harness or lose control of it is doing to us, and also how our world, technology and global enterprise have built models designed to effectively hijack our attention not in the name of the betterment of our lives or of humanity, but rather for their own good. Johann goes deep into his research and ideas, and the groundbreaking book Stolen Focus Why You Can’t Pay Attention, and we explore what he calls an attentional pathogenic culture, how it’s making life both harder and sometimes sadder, and importantly, what we can do about it to reclaim our attention and in doing so, reclaim our lives. So excited to share this best of conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:26] Well, I want to dive in with you. Um, you know, the story that you tell about your three months in Providence, I think is really powerful, and I want to explore that a little bit. But there was also, it sounds like there was an inciting incident even before you decide to go deep into attention and before you have this really fascinating three-month experience in Providence, which was the relationship with your godson who had this sort of obsession with Elvis, that I guess a little bit later in life, when he was struggling a little bit, led to this moment with you that awakened you to the fact that something’s happening around here that even preceded this three month sabbatical in Providence. Talk me through that experience a bit.


Johann Hari: [00:03:06] And just to say it’s an easy mistake to make. It’s Provincetown, not Providence. It would have been much less glamorous. God’s providence. But although I had been to Providence, Rhode Island, it’s very nice. No disrespect to them. Um, yeah. Well, when he was nine, my godson developed this brief but freakishly intense obsession with Elvis Presley. I never even discovered how he found out who he was. And it was particularly cute because he didn’t know that Elvis had become a cheesy cliche. So I think he was the last person in the history of Western civilization to do an entirely sincere impression of Elvis. And when I tucked him in at night, he would get me to tell him the story of Elvis’s life again and again. And I tried to skip over the bit at the end where Elvis dies on the toilet, obviously. And one night I was tucking him in and I mentioned Graceland, where Elvis lived, and he said to me, Johan, will you take me to Graceland one day? And I said, sure, in the way you do with nine-year-olds knowing next week it will be Disneyland or whatever. And he said, no. Do you really promise? Do you swear one day you’re going to take me to Graceland? And I said, I absolutely promise. And I didn’t think at that moment again, for ten years until so many things had gone wrong. So he dropped out of school when he was 15.


Johann Hari: [00:04:17] And by the time he was 19, he spent literally. This is not an exaggeration. Almost literally, every waking moment, alternating between his iPad and his iPhone and his life, was just this blur of WhatsApp, YouTube, pornography, the social media sites. And it was almost like he was kind of whirring at the speed of Snapchat when nothing still or serious could touch him. And one day we were sitting on my sofa just next to where I’m talking to you now, and I’ve been trying to talk to him all day and just nothing was getting any traction. And to be totally honest with you, I wasn’t that much better. I was staring at my own devices. And I suddenly remembered this moment all those years before. And I said to him, hey, let’s go to Graceland. And he looked at me completely blankly, didn’t even remember this. And I reminded him, and I said, no, let’s let’s break this numbing routine. Let’s go all over the South. But you’ve got to promise me one thing, which is that when we go, you’ll leave your phone in the hotel during the day. And he thought about it and he said, yeah, I could see that breaking this routine really appealed to him. And I think it was two two weeks later, we took off from Heathrow in London to to New Orleans, where we started, and a couple of weeks later we arrived at the gates of Graceland.


Johann Hari: [00:05:32] And when you get there, this is even before Covid. There’s no one to show you around. What happens is they hand you an iPad and you put in some earbuds and the iPad shows you around. It says, go left, go right. It tells you a story about that room. And everywhere you go, every room you go into, there’s a picture of that room on the iPad. So what happens is everyone just walks around Graceland staring at their iPads, and I’m getting sort of slightly irritated by this. And we got to the Jungle Room, which was Elvis’s favorite room in Graceland. It’s full of fake plants, and there was a Canadian couple next to us, and the husband turned to his wife and said, honey, this is amazing. Look, if you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left, and if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right. And. And I laughed out loud. I thought he was kidding. And I turned and watched them. And they’re just swiping back and forth, and I. I leaned over and I said, but hey, sir, there’s an old-fashioned form of swiping you could do. It’s called turning your head. Because, look, we’re in the jungle room. You don’t need to look at it on your iPad. We’re actually there. And they looked at me like I was completely deranged and backed out of the room, and I turned to my godson to laugh about it, and he was standing in the corner of the room staring at Snapchat, because from the minute we landed, he couldn’t stop.


Johann Hari: [00:06:55] And I went up to him and I did something that’s never a good idea with teenagers. I tried to grab the phone out of his hand and I said, I know you’re afraid of missing out, but this is guaranteeing that you’ll miss out. You’re not showing up at your own life. You’re not present at your own existence. And he stormed off. So I wandered around Memphis on my own for the rest of the day. And I found him that night at the Heartbreak Hotel, where we were staying, just down the street, and he was sitting by the swimming pool, and I went up to him and he was just kind of scrolling. He didn’t look up at me, but I, I apologized and and he carried on staring at Snapchat, but he said, I know something’s really wrong here and I don’t know what it is. And I realized, oh, we we’d come away to try to deal with this crisis in being present. But that crisis was everywhere. They felt like there was no escape. And that’s when I thought, okay, I need to figure out what’s going on here. I need to investigate this. Mhm.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:46] And it’s interesting right? Because as you mentioned you’re observing that in him. But it’s also you, it’s like we’re, we’re all in this place where we’re trying to figure it out from the inside looking at, you know, we’re inside the jar and trying to read the label on the outside to a certain extent. So.


Johann Hari: [00:08:00] Oh, I love that analogy. That’s a brilliant analogy. That’s an excellent way of putting it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:03] Not mine, by the way. It’s a dear friend, Charlie Gilkey. I give him full credit.


Johann Hari: [00:08:08] Aww, interesting. I wish I’d known that when I was writing the book, I would have used it. That’s a great line.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:14] Um, so this sounds like a trigger. Something in you? Not too long after that, you take this time, you know, like you’re in a point in your career where you’ve got a window where you can say, okay, so let me actually run this experiment, and you effectively go and you take a sabbatical and you spend three months withdrawn from technology, really experiencing like, what is this like, what is it doing to and for me? Tell me about that experience a bit.


Johann Hari: [00:08:37] When I came back from Memphis, I was so horrified that I just thought, you know, I was in this lucky position. One of my books was being made into a film, so I had some money and I just thought, I can’t take this anymore. And the stories I had in my head. So my own ability to focus had been getting worse. It felt like with each year that passed, things that required deep focus like reading a book, having proper conversations, watching long movies, things that are so deep to my sense of self were getting more and more like running up and down escalator, you know what I mean? I could still do them, but they were getting harder and harder and I just thought, I can’t take this anymore. And because the stories I had in my head about why my own attention had been getting worse at the time were I later realized these were in fact wrong or hugely oversimplified. I basically had two stories. One is I thought, well, you’re just weak. You don’t have enough willpower. Why aren’t you strong enough? Why can’t you resist this? And and secondly, I thought, well, someone invented the smartphone, and that screwed me over, right? So if those are the two stories you have in your head, there’s a kind of logical solution. Use your willpower to separate yourself from the smartphone. So I decided to go for three months to a place called Provincetown in Cape Cod, which people who don’t know it is a little kind of gay resort town. It’s, um, it’s the kind of place where more than one person makes a full-time living by dressing as Ursula, the villain from The Little Mermaid.


Johann Hari: [00:09:57] A great place, and I left my phone, my internet-enabled phone and my internet-enabled laptop in in Boston, and I literally got a boat to flee them. And lots of things happened in those three months in Provincetown. There were some ups and downs, but the thing that most surprised me, you know, I was nearly 40. I thought, well, maybe I just got older. Maybe that’s why my attention isn’t good. My attention went back to being as good as it had been when I was 17. I could read eight hours a day. I was stunned by the level of improvement. I later learned there were actually many things that changed in Provincetown that that boosted my attention. Not just separating myself from the technology, but so I remember at the very I remember the last day I was in Provincetown going to what’s it called, Long Point, which is where the lighthouse is, and looking back over the whole of Provincetown and thinking about this time and thinking about, you know, 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 focus and attention. And when your focus and attention break down, your ability to solve your problems breaks down. Your ability to achieve your goals breaks down. And what I’d felt like I’d got back in Provincetown was a sense of my own competence.


Johann Hari: [00:11:16] I felt competent again, like I could follow through on things. I remember thinking, well, why would I ever go back to how I lived before? Why would I ever go back to that? And I went back. I got very sick on the ferry back and it was quite choppy journey. And I got my phone back and I got my laptop back. And within a month I was 80% back to where I’d been before I went. No, I never went entirely back. And I only really understood why. When I went to Moscow in Russia to interview Doctor James Williams, who had worked at he’d been a senior strategist at Google, was appalled by what they were doing to our attention, left and became, I would argue, the leading philosopher of attention in the world. He was living in Moscow because his his wife works for the World Health Organization there. And he said to me, look, the mistake you’ve made here, Johann, is it’s like you thought the solution to air pollution was for you personally to wear a gas mask, right? Now, I’m not opposed to gas masks. If I lived in Beijing, I’d wear a gas mask. But it’s not the solution to air pollution. The solution for air pollution is to go to the source of the pollution. And it took me a long time to really absorb the the lesson of what he’d said. But eventually I was able to expand my understanding of what was happening based on partly on what he said. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:12:28] I mean, it’s it’s telling that, you know, you have this experience. You awaken to the fact that there are all these benefits. And being fully aware, you go back and within a matter of weeks are sort of back into like this same routine. And it really does describe the the experience I think so many of us have where even knowing what’s going on doesn’t necessarily allow us to remedy the problem. There’s a phrase that you describe living in an attentional pathogenic culture. What do you actually mean by that?


Johann Hari: [00:13:00] Well, that was a phrase that was used to me by a professor, Joel Nigg, who’s one of the leading experts on children’s attention problems. And he was posing as a question that we should ask if we’re living in attentional pathogenic environment. So I think what he was doing was making a play on. There’s a concept that’s very well established in science that the contemporary in the contemporary United States, we have what’s called an obesogenic environment. If you look at a picture of a beach in the United States in 1960, it looks really strange to us now. Just Google them because everyone is what we would call slim or buff. And you think of, first of all, where’s everyone else? And then you look at the, the evidence. And there were almost no obese people in 1960, in the United States. And then a whole series of changes in the environment happened and our entire food supply system changed. We built cities. It’s impossible to bike and walk around and we became more stressed. That makes people come to eat. So we created what’s called an obesogenic environment. In the contemporary United States, it’s easy to become obese and hard to avoid it. And I think what Professor Nigg was doing there, and he did obviously talked about the analogy with obesity is something similar as happening to our environment.


Johann Hari: [00:14:07] So to understand this, I ended up going on this big journey all over the world, from Miami to Melbourne to Montreal, and I interviewed over 200 of the leading experts in the world about attention and focus. And what I learned from them is there’s actually scientific evidence for 12 factors that can make your attention better or can make it worse, and loads of the factors that can make your attention worse have been hugely rising in recent years. These include aspects of our technology. Some aspects not all, but they also go way beyond them. The food we eat, the sleep we don’t get, the air we breathe. There’s an enormous array of factors that are bearing on our on our attention. And this is why, you know, the book is called Stolen Focus because I realized our attention didn’t collapse. Our attention has been stolen from us by these big forces. But once we understand those forces, we can begin to deal with them. And there’s sort of two levels at which we have to deal with them that I talk about. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:14:59] I think it also makes sense for us to talk about, you know, when you think about, okay, so there are these 12 different factors, many sort of, um, almost on a systemic level. Or there are things that are they’re part of our built environment in no small part these days. What I want to ask also is, why do we care about this? So when we’re talking about attention, we’re talking about attention being stolen from us, and we’re talking about the fact that, you know, we live in a world where it’s getting harder and harder and harder to focus. What is the effect of that? What’s the effect on our mental health, our relationships, our creativity, our productivity, our performance, our humanity at large? Like, why do and should we care so much about this?


Johann Hari: [00:15:36] Well, to stay with Doctor Williams, who I mentioned, who has done brilliant work on this, he argues there are three layers of attention. I would argue there are four. And I put this to him and he agreed. So the first level is the one that we think about most of the time when we think about being distracted and it’s he calls it our spotlight. So your spotlight is your ability to filter out all the other things around you and narrow down to one thing. So in the room I’m in now, you know, I can see out the window, I can see the street. If I, if I just turn my head slightly. There’s a television in my room. It’s not switched on. Somewhere in this room there is my phone. It might be flashing up little messages for me. I’m filtering all of that out, and I’m listening to you. What did he just ask me? Oh, yeah. He asked me about attention. Right. So that’s the most common form of attention that we think about. Spotlight is your ability to achieve your immediate tasks. So let’s say I have here a can of Coke Zero, but it’s nearly empty. So let’s say I say, oh, can we pause for a second and go to the fridge. And I go to the fridge to get another Coke Zero. But on the way there I get a text from someone. I look at it, I forget why I went there, and I come back without a can of Coke Zero.


Johann Hari: [00:16:37] That would be an interruption to my spotlight, my ability to achieve my immediate short-term goals. That’s one level of attention, obviously a very important one, and I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone that that’s being hugely interrupted. The average American office worker now focuses on any one task for only three minutes, but above that, there’s another level of attention that Doctor Williams calls your starlight. And your starlight isn’t your ability to achieve your immediate tasks, but your ability to achieve more medium to long-term goals like, say, I want to set up a business, I want to write a book, whatever it might be. It calls it your starlight. Because when you’re traveling in the desert, if you don’t have a compass or GPS, you look to the stars and you remember that’s the direction you’re traveling in. And I think that’s clearly being disrupted as well. Above that, there’s another level which he calls your daylight, which is how do you even know what your long-term goals are? How do you know you want to set up a business? How do you know what the business is? How do you know you want to write a book? How do you know what you care about enough to write a book. You want to be a good parent. How do you know what it means to be a good parent? It’s called your daylight because you can see a scene most clearly when it’s flooded with daylight. And he argues that our short-term and long-term attention is being so disrupted that it’s damaging our ability to even formulate our goals.


Johann Hari: [00:17:52] Right. To know what you want to do. You’ve got to have periods of rest, of mind wandering, of reflection, and we’re just being denied those things at the moment. Most of us, and I would argue there’s a layer of attention even beyond that, which I would call our stadium lights. And that’s our ability not just to achieve our own long-term goals, but our ability as a society to see each other and formulate collective goals. Right. Think about I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re having a huge the biggest crisis in democracy across the world since the 1930s. At the same time as we’re having this huge crisis in our ability to pay attention, clearly it’s not the only factor. There’s lots of things going on, but a society of people who can’t pay attention, can’t think clearly, can’t listen to other people, and the other side will become more brittle, more angry, more bitter, especially if we’re interacting through mechanisms that are designed to make us angry, as social media is. We can talk about that more. So I would argue all of these four layers, when you think about it, in this four-layer model, you begin to see why it’s not just, oh, I’m a bit distracted. I couldn’t quite, you know, I couldn’t quite finish reading this long magazine article. This affects every layer of your life and the society’s life. 


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:04] Hmm. No, that makes a lot of sense to me. What popped into my head as you’re sharing that is so. I’m a long-time meditator. Mindfulness has been my practice for, you know, over a decade. And somewhere along the way, the phrase meta attention or meta-awareness came into the conversation for me. And it’s always been described. And when I have experienced it as the ability to almost zoom the lens out and become aware, attentive to where your attention actually is at any given moment in time, which gives you the sense of agency and intentionality to then choose whether that’s where you want it to be and redirect it if you want. Where does the concept of meta attention or meta-awareness fit into that framework?


Johann Hari: [00:19:46] Well, I think what you’re describing is really important and I have lots of thoughts about it. So for all of the 12 factors that I write about in Stolen Focus that are harming people’s our ability to focus and pay attention, I would argue there’s two levels at which we have to respond to it. There are all sorts of things that we can do as individuals to protect ourselves and our children. A lot of the book is about children to defend ourselves against these forces that are doing this to us, and I’m passionately in favor of those individual changes. They can make a real difference. Meditation is an excellent example of one of those individual changes. I also want to be really honest with people in a way that I think most attention books, frankly, aren’t. Those things are really important, but they will only get you so far because at the moment it’s like we’re living. It’s like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day and then leaning forward and going, hey, buddy, you ought to learn to meditate. Then you wouldn’t scratch so much and you want to go, okay, I’ll learn to meditate. That is hugely valuable. But you need to stop pouring itching powder on me. Right. And so we need to have this other level. I think of it as defense and offense. We need to defend ourselves and our children as much as possible. Meditation is a terrific tool, along with lots, dozens of others I talk about in the book. But we also need to go on offense against the factors that are doing this to us. And that can sound very fancy, but I give lots of practical examples of places that actually did that and are doing that now in the world that we can follow.


Jonathan Fields: [00:21:07] And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. So let’s dive into those, those the bigger systemic factors also, and then we’ll loop around to some of the things that we can actually do, some of the interventions, the way that we can engage with this. But when you talk about and you use the word stolen in the title of your book is, you describe because there’s something bigger happening that is, has the the sensation of this being taken from us on a larger scale? Um, you’ve referenced technology, and it’s not just technology, it’s the entire model, the business model that’s built around the way that we interact with technology. So take me deeper into that and how you see it really having a deleterious effect on our attention. And then in turn, the way that we actually are able to engage with and live our lives.


Johann Hari: [00:21:55] Yeah. So there’s lots that you’ve put there and there’s a lot of layers to this. So let’s look at an obvious example that it will be playing out for virtually everyone who’s listening today, unless they’re very fortunate. I went to interview a man named professor Earl Miller at MIT, who’s one of the leading neuroscientists in the world. And he said to me, there’s one thing you need to understand about the human brain more than anything else. You can only consciously think about 1 or 2 things at a time. That’s it. This is a great, you know, meta-attentional insight. That’s it. This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain. The human brain is not significantly changed in 40,000 years. It’s not going to change on any time scale any of us are going to see. You can only think about 1 or 2 things at a time. But what’s happened is we’ve fallen for a mass delusion. The average American teenager now believes they can follow 6 or 7 forms of media at the same time. So what happens is scientists get people into labs, not just teenagers, adults as well, older people as well, and they get them to think they’re doing more than one thing at a time. And what they discover is always the same. You can’t do more than one thing at a time. What you do is you juggle very quickly between tasks, your consciousness, papers over it. You don’t quite. You’re not aware of it, but you’re switching, you’re switching, switching, switching what? What did he just ask me? What was that on the television there? What’s this message on WhatsApp? Wait, what did he just ask me again? You’re juggling.


Johann Hari: [00:23:13] And it turns out that juggling comes with a really big cost. The technical term for that cost is the switch cost effect. When you try and do more than one thing at a time, You will do all the things you’re trying to. You’re trying to do much less competently. You’ll make more mistakes. You’ll remember less of what you do. You’ll be less creative. And this sounds like a small effect. It’s a really big effect. And I’ll give you an example from a small study that’s backed by a very small study that’s backed by a much wider body of evidence. Hewlett-Packard, the printer company, got a scientist in to study their workforce, and he split the workers into two groups. And the first group was told, just get on with your task, whatever it is, and you’re not going to be interrupted. And the second group was told, get on with your task, whatever it is, but you’re going to have to answer a heavy load of email and phone calls. And at the end of it, this scientist tested the IQ of both these small groups. The group that had not been interrupted scored on average ten IQ points higher than the group that had been interrupted. To give you a sense of how big that effect is.


Johann Hari: [00:24:13] If you or me got stoned together, now you’re in Colorado. It’s legal. If we sat down and smoked a fat spliff together, our IQs would go down in the short term by five points. So in the short term, you’d be better off sitting at your desk getting stoned and not being interrupted than sitting at your desk, not getting stoned and being interrupted all the time. Now, to be clear, you’d be better off neither getting stoned nor being interrupted, obviously, but you get a sense of how big this effect is. This is why Professor Miller said to me, we live in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of all these interruptions. But what you’re getting at in your question, which is so important, is we are currently using technology that is designed to maximally interrupt us, right? This isn’t my view. Listen to Sean Parker, who was one of the biggest initial investors in Facebook, he said, we designed Facebook to maximally distract people and invade their attention. We knew what we were doing and we did it anyway. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains. That’s what they say. And it’s really important to understand this mechanism because actually, it should really give us hope. You know, the way Big tech want us to think about this debate is are you pro-tech or are you anti-tech? Right. And of course, we’re not going to give up our tech.


Johann Hari: [00:25:24] We’re not going to join the Amish, nor would I want us to. No disrespect to any Amish people who are listening. I guess they’re cheating if they are. Um, that’s not the debate. The question is not are you pro-tech or anti-tech? The question is what tech designed for what purposes? Working in whose interests? So at the moment, social media has been designed around one particular business model. It does not have to work that way. So I interviewed loads of people in Silicon Valley who designed key aspects of the technology, as in our kids use all the time, right? And it took a long time for them explaining it for me to really understand this. So let’s say anyone listening, if you don’t do it, but if you open Facebook now, or TikTok or Twitter or any of the social media, social media accounts, apps, they start to make money in two ways straight away. The first way is really obvious. You see ads, okay, everyone listening knows how that works. The second way is much more important. Everything you do on those apps is scanned and sorted by the artificial intelligence algorithms of those apps to build up a picture of who you are. So let’s say that you clicked that you like, I don’t know, Bette Midler, Bernie Sanders, and you tell your mom you just bought some diapers. Okay, so it figures out you like Bette Midler and you’re a man. You’re probably gay. Uh, you like Bernie Sanders, you’re probably left wing and you’re talking about buying diapers. You must have a baby. So they’re building up a portrait of you. They’ve got tens of thousands of data points like that. They know who you are. And that’s partly so they can sell you to advertisers your attention. They want to sell all this information so advertisers can target you because you are not the customer of these apps. You are the product they sell to the real customer who’s the advertiser. But more importantly, they’re also learning the weaknesses in your retention so they can keep feeding you the things that will keep you scrolling. Because the more frequently you pick up your phone and the longer you scroll, the more money they make. So all these engineers in Silicon Valley, all these algorithms, all this engineering genius is built towards one thing, figuring out, how can I get you to pick up your phone as often as possible and scroll as long as possible? But what’s important to understand is social media doesn’t have to work that way. There’s a different way. Social media can work this entirely achievable. And there’s an analogy in American history that really helped me to think about this alternative. And you’ll remember it. I remember it from when I was a kid, so not that long ago, the standard form of gasoline in the United States was leaded petrol, right? Leaded gasoline. And a bit before, before my time, people used to paint their homes with leaded paint.


Johann Hari: [00:27:59] And it was discovered that exposure to lead is incredibly bad for your brain and particularly bad for children’s ability to focus and pay attention. So what happened? A group of ordinary moms, it was mostly mothers banded together and said, why are we allowing this? Why are we allowing these companies to ruin our children’s brains? It’s crazy, and it’s important to notice what they didn’t say. They didn’t say. So we’re anti-gasoline. They didn’t say. So we’re anti-paint. They didn’t say ban all gasoline and ban all paint. That would have been ridiculous. They said let’s ban the specific component in the gasoline and in the lead. That is harming our kids attention. They fought. They fought for years. They succeeded. As a result, the CDC, the center for Disease Control, has calculated that the average American child is 3 to 5 IQ points higher than they would have been had lead not been banned. Right. So you can see to me this is a really important model. We identify something in the environment that’s banning that’s harming our attention. We band together to act on the science. We get rid of that component while retaining the good stuff that was around that component in the same way. So Aza Raskin, who invented a key part of how the internet works, his dad, Jeff Raskin, invented the Apple Macintosh for Steve Jobs. Aza I said to me, you know, there’s an equivalent to the lead in the lead paint.


Johann Hari: [00:29:13] He said, ban the current business model for social media. What the kind of fancy term for it is surveillance capitalism, he said. Just just say that a model, a business model that is based on tracking you, surveilling you in order to figure out the weaknesses in your attention, hack them. That’s just inhuman. Don’t allow it. And lots of people had to say this to me before I really absorbed it. And I remember saying to Aza, okay, let’s imagine we do that. We ban the current business model. And I opened Facebook the next day. Would it just say, you know, sorry everyone, we’ve gone fishing? He said, of course not. What would happen is they’d have to move to a different business model. And everyone listening has experience of the two different business models. Almost everyone. The first is subscription. Okay, everyone knows how Netflix works. You pay a small amount, you get access another model. Think about the sewers. Before we had sewers, we had feces. In the street. We got cholera. So now we all pay for the sewers to be built and maintained. And we all own the sewers together. You own the sewers in Boulder? I own the sewers in London and Las Vegas, the cities where I live. We own the sewers in the places where we live. It may be that just like we want to own the sewage pipes together, we want to own the information pipes together because we’re getting the equivalent of cholera for our attention.


Johann Hari: [00:30:34] Now, whatever the alternative business model we choose is, the important thing to understand is all the incentives change at the moment. The incentives for social media companies are to figure out, how do we get you and your kids to pick up your phone as often as possible and scroll as long as possible? But in these different models, suddenly you become the customer. They have to go, what does Johan want? Oh, turns out Johan wants to be able to pay attention. Let’s design our app. Not to hack his attention, but to heal his attention. Oh, it turns out Johan wants to meet up with his friends offline because people feel good when they look into each other’s eyes rather than scrolling staring through screens. Okay, let’s design it to help people meet up offline rather than to prevent them from meeting up line. That’s incredibly technologically easy. My friends in Silicon Valley could do that tomorrow. The key thing is we have to get the incentives right to do it. And we can do that, right. There’s no more leaded paint. You know, just to say one last thing on this, James Williams, who I mentioned before, said to me, you know, the axe existed for 1.4 million years before anyone thought to put a handle on it. The entire internet has existed for less than 10,000 days. We can get this stuff right if we want to.


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:38] Yeah. I mean, when you describe it this way, it all makes sense. And I think we all feel like we’ve been living in that matrix for, you know, like a chunk of time now. And, you know, our attention is the big commodity. And because that leads to the accumulation of information, which creates identity profiles, and there’s value in that. When you look at Silicon Valley, though, you know, like so this is not a new problem. This is something that’s been talked about for years now. And there have been, from what I recall, people who’ve tried to say, well, let’s offer an alternative to this, you know, let’s offer a platform where we can build community. And it’s not about you being the product. It’s not about stealing your attention. It’s not about selling your data and serving up ads. And it’s never entirely caught on. I’m actually thinking about podcasting right now, which may be the most successful version of this. So what’s happening in the world of podcasting right now is, you know, the original model that that really built out this still rapidly growing space was ad-based. Now we’re seeing that on any on a much more frequent level, offering subscriptions to listeners has become a really growing part of the business model in the podcasting world. And part of that promise is, you know, like you will get an ad-free feed, you know, basically, you know, like we’re not going to serve anything else into it. And the latest data that I’ve seen, you know, from all the insider stuff, is that somewhere between 3 and 8% of listeners actually would raise their hand to say, I will pay to opt out of that experience where my attention is being interrupted and the other 90 something percent are saying, I would rather have my attention interrupted and not pay. So what’s going on here? Because there are. We are being offered alternative models, but the vast majority of people are still not saying yes to it. Is that because we just don’t realize what the cost is to us? Personally?


Johann Hari: [00:33:35] I think there’s a few reasons. I mean, it’s a bit like saying, uh, why should we deal with the obesity crisis? Because only a few people shop at Whole Foods, right? It’s like, yeah, we’ve got a society where, you know, half of all Americans have less than $600 in savings through no fault of their own, because that money was transferred to the rich. So do they choose to prioritize the tiny amount of money they have on avoiding ads? Well, no, because they don’t have that much money, you know? So I think if you had a situation where wealth was distributed more evenly and people had the society’s wealth was distributed reasonably as it used to be, we’d only be falsely nostalgic about the past, particularly around race, because there were many things wrong. But think about look at the distribution of wealth in the 1950s in the United States, between the working class, middle class and rich, it was very different. So I just think that tells you people don’t have very much money and they’ve got other priorities, and they’re not wrong to have other priorities. They’ve got to feed their kids. Right. So I don’t think that tells you very much. What we’ve got now is a source of pollution. And the solution to that is not to say, well, let’s just develop this little bubble over here, which isn’t polluted.


Johann Hari: [00:34:43] The solution is to deal with the source of the pollution. Right? Um, so yeah, I think that’s, that’s that’s, uh, a very important factor there. And I also think this is really important that we get this right now, because at the moment we’re in a race. If you look at all of the 12 factors that I write about in Stolen Focus that are undermining our attention, many of them, not all. Many of them are poised to get much more powerful across my lifetime. And yours. You know, Paul Graham, one of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley, said the world would be more addictive in the next 40 years than it was in the last 40 on the current trajectory. Think about how much more addictive TikTok is than Facebook. Okay, now imagine the next crack-like existing iteration of TikTok that will be in the metaverse. So that’s one side of the race. You’ve got these factors that are going to become more invasive. If we don’t act on the other side of the race, we’ve got to have a movement of all of us saying, no, no, you don’t get to do this to us. No, you don’t get to hack and invade us and our children. No, we don’t tolerate this. No, this is not a good life.


Johann Hari: [00:35:45] No, we choose instead a life where we can think deeply, where we can focus, where we can pay attention. And again, it requires a shift in focus. You know, we are not medieval peasants begging at the court of King Zuckerberg for a few little crumbs of attention from his table. We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our own minds, and we can take them back both at the individual level to some degree, but more at the collective level. And that requires many collective changes that go significantly beyond that. Certainly a very important part of that is dealing with the current business model, which is explicitly designed to hack and invade our attention and needs to be stopped and will become more sophisticated if we don’t act. But there’s many, many more factors. And it’s important to say this this is not pie in the sky. I went to places that dealed with dealt with a lot of these problems. So let’s think about another example. It’s related to what we’re talking about, the switch cost effect. Right. So in France in 2018 they were having a huge crisis of what they called le burnout, which I don’t think I need to translate. And the French government under pressure from labor unions, and they would never have done it without labor unions pressuring them, set up a government inquiry to figure out, well, why the hell is everyone so burned out? And what they discovered is that 35% of French workers felt they could never stop checking their phones or their email because their boss could message them at any time of the day or night.


Johann Hari: [00:37:05] And if they didn’t answer, they’d be in trouble. You know, I mean, I remember when we were kids, the only people who were on call were doctors, right? And they weren’t on call all the time. We’ve gone from, you know, almost nobody being on call to almost half the economy being on call all the time. And I can give those people in that position all the lovely self-help lectures in the world about the benefits of unplugging and sleep and all those things. They can’t do it right. That’s not a lovely, liberating piece of advice. It’s a cruel taunt to say that to them, which is why we need to build the collective solution. So what? The French government labor unions then pressured the French government to introduce a legal reform, which has been introduced. I went there just afterwards to France before the plague, obviously. So every French worker now has a legal right to disconnect. And it just stipulates in the law very clearly, your work hours have to be defined in your contract, and you have the legal right when you leave work to not check your phone or your email until you come into work the next day or on Monday.


Johann Hari: [00:38:04] Right? So it’s just restoring to people what your parents and my parents took for granted that when you finish work, you finish work right now, you can see how that’s one of the many collective changes I advocate for in style and focus. It won’t happen unless we fight for it. It only happened in France because French workers fought for it. That frees people up to make a lot of the individual changes that they need to make. So there’s a complex relationship between the individual changes and the collective changes, and to just advocate the individual changes in the absence of this collective layer, which is what pretty much all other attention books do, is, to me, dishonest. It’s a form of privilege, right? Most people can’t do that on their own. They can’t do what I did in Provincetown. They can’t go away for three months. My family can’t do that. I couldn’t do that until I had the freakish luck of one of my books being made into a movie. That’s why we have to collectively change the way we live, in targeted ways that deal with the factors that are undermining our attention.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:55] Yeah, I mean, it’s so powerful to zoom the lens out like that, and we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. You made a point also. That said, basically it’s not necessarily about dismantling the old. It is about reimagining something that is so much qualitatively more appealing and better that when we step into that container, the way that it makes us feel, we don’t want to step back out into it. And I recall the the teachings of Gene Sharp, who was this professor emeritus who passed a few years ago in his 90s, who was sort of did a lot of the seminal research on nonviolent political revolution and wrote this book called From Dictator to Democracy, that became the the Handbook for so many Revolutions around the world. And one of his principles was, you need to get really clear on what the qualities of this new thing are, and then don’t message down with the old whatever you picture as The oppressor, like the central mission cannot be to topple the current dictator. It’s got to be to reimagine something that is so much more desirable and appealing, and then rally people to build that, that so many people start to move into this new solution, this new state, this new container that the pillars that supported the old simply disintegrate. And whether it remains in name only or not, you don’t really care about, you know, the focus needs to be on where are we moving to? And so many of us are focusing on how do we change the old or how do we dismantle it, how do we topple it? I think that’s a really important distinction to make.


Johann Hari: [00:40:34] I love that, and it’s particularly relevant at the moment because, funny enough, Russian activists are literally talking about Gene Sharp for obvious, obvious reasons. But the I think that’s fascinating and absolutely right. And if we think about them as pillars that we want to move to. So I’ll give you an example. I love the way you framed that. I think it’s really important. And I’ll give you an example of one of the core pillars. So the last I guess quarter of the book is about our children, because if kids don’t form attention, they’re going to really struggle when they’re older to do it right. It’s still possible, but it’ll be harder. So building children who can pay attention is absolutely fundamental to getting this right. And I go through lots of things that are bearing on our children. The food that’s currently being fed to our children is profoundly harming their attention. Children sleep 85 minutes less than they did a century ago. That profoundly harms their attention. The way our school system is designed is catastrophic. If you wanted to design a school system, this is not the fault of teachers at all who never liked it. If you wanted to design a school system that would destroy children’s attention, you would build one around memorizing completely pointless things for meaningless tests that make them stressed out and anxious. It’s appalling. We can talk about all of that, but I would actually go to the biggest thing, which is.


Johann Hari: [00:41:42] So there’s been a huge increase in children’s diagnosed attention problems. For every one child who is identified with serious attention problems when I was seven years old, there’s now 100 children who’ve been identified with that problem, and all sorts of things are going on. Obviously, the business model that we’ve just talked about in terms of many, many things, but I actually think there’s one big overarching thing that we particularly can fix and costs nothing. And it’s really, really recommend it. And I think we can do this absolutely in the, in the short to medium term. So one of the heroes of my book is a woman called Lenore Skenazy. And she’s the hero, not because she identified the problem. That’s easy. She’s the hero because she built the solution, and one that every parent and grandparent can follow. Listening. So Lenore grew up in a suburb of Chicago in the 1960s, and from when she was five years old, every morning she left the house on her own and walked to school, which was 15 minutes away. And she would generally bump into all the other five, six, seven, eight-year-olds who were walking to school because everyone walked to school on their own in her neighborhood, and indeed across the United States at that time. It was completely normal when Lenore would get to near the school, there was a busy road, so there was a ten-year-old boy whose job was to help the five-year-olds cross the street.


Johann Hari: [00:42:54] And then when she finished school at 3 p.m., she would leave and play freely in the neighborhood for a couple of hours, and then she would find her way home when she was hungry again. That’s what everyone in the neighborhood did. By the time. And I’m sure that’s what your childhood was like, right? Very much so. By the time Lenore was a mother in in Queens, in New York in the 1990s, that had ended. In fact, by 2003, only 10% of American children ever played outdoors without an adult supervising them. And I think the 10% that did get to play outside got like 12 minutes a week. So it just ended. Childhood became something even long before Covid. Although Covid accentuated, this childhood became something that happened entirely behind closed doors and almost entirely under adult supervision. And it turns out that childhood we’ve lost contained all sorts of things that were essential for developing attention and focus in the healthiest possible way to give you a real no-shit Sherlock example exercise, right? The evidence is overwhelming. We mentioned Professor Joel Nigg, the brilliant children’s attention expert, before kids who get to run around form more brain connections and can pay attention better, the single best thing you can do for children who can’t pay attention is let them go and run around and come back. We are the first human society ever to try to get children to sit still for eight hours a day.


Johann Hari: [00:44:11] It’s madness, right? And but actually, there’s something even more important. So in that free play, when children are playing freely with each other, without adults standing over them, doctor Isabel Behncke, the great Chilean scientist, has done a lot of good work on this. It turns out when children play freely, they develop all sorts of things that are really essential for attention. They learn what interests them. That’s really important for attention. They learn how to persuade other kids to pay attention to what interests them. They learn how to take turns paying attention to the things the other kids want them to pay attention to. They learn how to take risks, how to deal with anxiety. You try and climb the tree. You go too high, you get anxious. You realize you survived anxiety. Dealing with anxiety is essential for having a healthy sense of attention. We took all that away and Lenore could see this was a disaster, right? She was ahead of the game on this one. And at first she thought, well, the solution is kind of obvious. I just need to persuade parents to let their kids play outdoors. So she would say to parents, tell me about something you did when you were a kid that you don’t allow your own children to do, and people, their eyes would light up. They took I used to ride my bike in the woods. What comes to mind for you?


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:26] Just like running around outside, I mean, spending time out in nature, you know, that was every day, just like you. Just what you described was very much my childhood. And as a parent now, I see as much as I value that and I try and it’s so different because even as a parent, though, when you try and introduce these ideas and create the space for it and like literally build it in, there are so many other forces that say, no, you know, that that’s actually not the way we do this thing called childhood right now.


Johann Hari: [00:45:55] Exactly. So what Lenore discovered is exactly that insight that you’re saying, which is it doesn’t actually work to just persuade individual parents. Because if you’re the only parent who lets your child out, they get scared. You look crazy. And actually, often people call the cops. And so Lenore began to run an organization called Let Grow its Let Grow org. I really recommend everyone goes to them. Obviously I write about her in the book and what Let grow do is they go to whole schools and a whole neighborhoods, and they persuade everyone to give their kids increasing levels of independence that build up to letting their kids play outside and restoring childhood. So I went to a lot of Let Grow programs, and I think of all the hundreds of conversations I had for Stolen Focus, I think probably the most moving was that I Let Grow program in Long Island. I spoke to a 14-year-old boy who was a big, strong 14-year-old boy who was taller than me, and I’m not particularly sure. And until this program had begun nine months before, he’d never played outside his home without an adult, and his parents wouldn’t even let him go for a run around the block. I asked him why and he said, oh, my parents are afraid of all these kidnappings.


Johann Hari: [00:47:03] He said, this boy lives in a town where the French bakery is, across the street from the olive oil store, and he had a level of fear that would be appropriate if he lived in Ukraine right now. Right. And then this Let Grow program began, and he started to play outdoors with his friends. I asked him what he did. He said, we played ball games and basketball first, but then he said, we decided to go into the woods. And he said, he said, there’s a real or. He said, our cell phones didn’t have any signal in the woods. And we still went there. And I said, what did you do in the woods? And he said, we built a fort with our own hands. And now we go and sit in the fort and we build other things. And maybe this sounds melodramatic, but it really felt like as he was describing this, it felt like watching a child come to life. And I thought about how many kids I know who the only place they ever get to explore anything is on Fortnite and World of Warcraft and Minecraft, right? We can hardly be surprised they become so obsessed with them. And Lenore was with me that day, and when that boy left, she turned to me and she said, think about human history and human prehistory.


Johann Hari: [00:48:04] I think we’re not meant to use that term, but you know what I mean. All throughout human history, children had to go out and explore. They had to map the territory. They had to hunt, they had to seek, they had to build things. And what we did is we took all that away. And that boy, given a tiny little sliver of freedom, what did he do? He went into the woods and he built a fort because it’s so deep in human nature. And when we take that away from our children, we we’ve psychologically and physically confined our children. And of course, if anything good can come out of the horrors of the last two years, I think we can realize, you know, whatever you think about the Covid restrictions. And I was broadly in favor of them, obviously, to suppress the spread of an airborne virus, you have to stop people physically mixing. Um, but whatever you think about that, we can all see that this has had a catastrophic effect on our children. You know, I was in Las Vegas for a lot of the pandemic. The fact that the casinos were open and the schools were closed, that’s a society that’s got its priorities profoundly wrong. Right. And we should have put our children being able to mix with each other at the absolute top of the society’s priority list, and everything else can come later.


Johann Hari: [00:49:10] But what we can see, I think we can all see. Okay, confining our kids for two years is terribly harm them. Well, that should lead us to think, okay, confining our kids before that was really harming them. And now we can restore childhood. Obviously stolen focus. I advocate many things we need to do to restore attention. Many individual goals and collective goals. One of them is we have to restore human childhood because at the moment, our kids are not getting a childhood that our ancestors would even recognize as a human childhood. And this is really achievable. This is something I have gone on the most left-wing radio shows, which I’m sure you can guess are much closer to my politics. And I’ve gone on the most right-wing Fox News shows. And I’ve got to tell you, everyone has enthusiastically agreed with this, right? We can do this. Every school in the United States should have a Let Grow program. It costs literally nothing. This is free, right? We can do this. And this is so important for restoring attention because if we don’t do it now and the kids don’t get a sense of attention when they’re young, what are we setting them up for?


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:08] Yeah. I mean, what you’re really talking about is an attention revolution, starting with kids, you know, and planting those seeds early in life. Because if we don’t plant them, what’s the net effect on their lives? And then if you if you zoom the lens out. Right. What’s the net effect on society. What’s the net effect on the world. What’s the net effect on just our ability to live and flourish as human beings more broadly, you know, and it sounds on the one hand, you’re like, we’re just talking about attention, man. Like, and now you’re talking about the future of the human condition and and the answer, it’s. Yes. And, you know, like it is that central to our ability to experience life the way that we want to experience life. And yet it’s something that I feel, you know, we’ve been evicted from our own lives through the device of, you know, like attention. And it’s sort of a moment to step back into that. What you’re really talking about is, yes, there are all the individual things. You list a bunch of them in your book, and we see them espoused in a lot of different places, but going all the way back to the beginning of a conversation where, you know, you talk about if somebody is pouring itching powder on you, like, or if you’re in like a place where the air is so toxic to breathe, it’s we need upstream solutions now, you know, not instead of the immediate what am I going to do myself? But in addition to, um, and I think that’s a lot of the power of the work that, that this book is about and this topic is about and that you’ve been doing is zooming the lens out, but also doing it in a practical way and saying, here are examples.


Jonathan Fields: [00:51:35] This is the way it’s been done. This is why it matters. And this is change that it’s making. Um, and I think that’s critical for this moment in time for, you know, for all of us. You actually. Right. There’s a line where you write, we all have a choice now between two profound forces. Fragmentation or flow fragmentation makes you smaller, shallower, angrier. Flow makes you bigger, deeper, calmer. Fragmentation shrinks us, flow expands us. And I think we’re feeling that tension right now and that it’s about like, what are we going to choose for our kids, for ourselves, for our world moving forward? It feels like an inflection point to me.


Johann Hari: [00:52:10] I think that’s I love the phrase evicted from our own lives. I wish I’d thought of that myself. That’s brilliant. No, you’re right. We’ve been so taught to think about. And I used to think this way. I mean, as recently as when I started working on the book, we’d been taught to think of these problems as an individual pathology. Right. Either it’s a flaw in our child’s biology, or it’s a flaw in our own adult willpower. Now, there are real biological contributions for some kids, but this is a much bigger picture that requires a much bigger solution. And if you’re struggling to focus and pay attention, it’s not your fault this is happening to almost all of us, and it’s happening for reasons that are entirely comprehensible, that have been demonstrated by scientists that are relatively uncontroversial. And you’re right that what we lose when we lose attention, we lose many things, but we lose the ability to think deeply. And if you can’t think deeply and you can’t solve problems, I mean, think about the fact that we’re this is an inflection point for many reasons. But, you know, we are facing an unprecedented series of tripwires and trapdoors as a species, right? Think about how urgently we need to deal with the climate crisis. You know, a species of people who can’t think beyond a few minutes and spend their time screaming at each other on social media, is not going to deal with the climate crisis.


Johann Hari: [00:53:26] You’ve seen that our ability to deal with our collective problems is profoundly broken down in recent years. You know, I travel all over the US for my my work for research, and it’s really frightening the degree of polarization and rage that has taken over the society, it is really frightening. I mean, I was in Vegas during the election and it it really this maybe this sounds hyperbolic, but what the US is increasingly reminded me of is Northern Ireland, as it used to be when I first started going there 20 years ago, which is a highly tribalized society where everyone’s trying to figure out what tribe do you belong to in Northern Ireland, everyone’s trying to figure out. It’s less bad now than it used to be, but are you Protestant or you’re Catholic? There’s an old joke, you know, you’d say, I’m an atheist. And they go, yeah, but you’re a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist, right? And the US is really becoming like that. And there’s lots of these underlying mechanisms. So if you think about another reason why we need to deal with the business model for social media is deeply related to this. It’s something that we now know. Facebook itself knows from the leaked documents that we got thanks to Frances Haugen, who used to work there.


Johann Hari: [00:54:27] So to understand it, you have to slightly unpack something, because I would argue it’s not just our individual attention that’s being destroyed, it’s our collective attention that’s being destroyed. So you have to understand this mechanism. So to recap, we currently have a business model social media companies do. That means the longer you scroll and the more often you pick up your phone, the more money they make. So the systems are designed to figure out what will keep you scrolling and to feed you whatever will keep you scrolling. This next bit wasn’t the intention of anyone at Facebook or TikTok or any of these places, but those algorithms that were scanning okay, what keeps people scrolling bumped into an underlying human truth that’s actually been known about by psychologists for almost 100 years? It’s called negativity bias. It’s really simple. Human beings will stare longer at something that makes them angry and upset than something than they do at something that makes them feel good. If you’ve ever seen a car accident on the highway, you know exactly what I mean. You’ve stared longer at the mangled car wreck than you did at the lovely, 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.


Johann Hari: [00:55:29] But when this combines with algorithms that are designed to keep you scrolling, it leads to a horrific effect. So picture two teenage girls who go to the same party and leave and go home on the same bus, and one of them does an update where they say, I had a really nice time at that party. It was great. Another one goes, Karen was a total skank at that party, and her boyfriend is an asshole and just does an angry rant. So the algorithms are constantly scanning for the kind of language you use, and it will put that first status update into a few people’s feeds. It’ll put the second status update into way more people’s feeds, because if it’s enraging, it’s engaging. It’ll keep people scrolling, people go. What do you mean? Karen’s a skank? You’re a skank. You can see how it how it how it works. Now, that is bad enough at the level of two teenage girls at a party, right? We all know what’s happened to the anxiety levels of teenage girls. But when that’s applied to a whole society, well, we don’t have to imagine it because everyone listening has watched the news in the last five years. Right? And Facebook’s own, after the election of of Trump and the victory of Brexit, Facebook set up an internal inquiry of its data engineers to figure out, have we played a role in this polarization? And we now know what the engineers found because it was leaked, they, of course, kept it secret.


Johann Hari: [00:56:46] And the engineers came back and said the growth of Facebook under the current business model is inherently tied to polarization. It is inherently driving the society apart, and the only solution is for Facebook to abandon its current business model and move to a different business model. Right. And the Wall Street Journal, when they reported on this, had a very dry line where they said, Mark Zuckerberg asked that he never be brought any report like this ever again. Right. So they know what they’re doing and they know the effects, right? Think about, you know, the the genocide in Burma, Myanmar against the Muslim minority, the Rohingya. The UN warned that Facebook’s algorithms had pumped up the hateful messages about the Rohingya and fueled that genocide. Think about what happened in Brazil when Jair Bolsonaro, the far right leader, was elected outside his supporters the night of the election, chanted Facebook, Facebook, Facebook because they knew one of the key factors why he won. Not the only one, of course, and even if the only effect was that it got Jair Bolsonaro elected, you know, Bolsonaro has accelerated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which will massively accelerate the climate crisis, which will affect every single person listening to this podcast.


Johann Hari: [00:57:58] And it didn’t only happen in Brazil, it happened in countries as different as Brazil, Britain and Burma that the fact that it’s happening everywhere, the same kind of polarization tells you that there are similar underlying mechanisms. So it’s not just that we have to deal with these, this business model, because it is harming our individual attention. As Facebook’s own data scientist said, it is causing such polarization that it’s destroying our ability to collectively pay attention to our problems, to talk to each other, to listen to each other and to solve problems. You know, I think a lot about, you know, you’ll remember this. I remember it well as a kid, the ozone layer crisis. Right. So younger listeners might not remember this, but in the 80s, there was a chemical called CFCs that were in hairsprays and fridges. And we loved our hairsprays in the 80s that were going into the atmosphere. And it turned out they were causing they were damaging the ozone layer, which was a protective layer of ozone that surrounds the planet and protects us from the sun’s rays. And it was causing a hole in the ozone layer above the Arctic. So what happened? That science was discovered. It was explained to the public who were able to distinguish the truth from nonsense, lies, conspiracy theories.


Johann Hari: [00:59:08] The public pressured their political leaders all over the world. Very different kinds of governments, from Margaret Thatcher to the Communist Soviet Union, all in response to that pressure, banned CFCs. And now the ozone layer is healing. Right now, I do not believe if the ozone layer crisis happened now, that we would respond in anything like the same way, I think you would get some people who would do the right thing and say, act on the science and they’d wear little ozone layer badges on their lapels and they’d build a whole identity around it. You would get other people who would say, how do we even know the ozone layer exists? How do we even know it’s there? Maybe George Soros made the hole in the ozone layer. Maybe evil Jewish space lasers made the hole in the ozone layer. All sorts of mad filth would start being said, and we would just not be able to act at all, you know? So it’s really important. I don’t want to be nostalgic about the 80s. There were lots of things wrong in the 80s. But we’ve got to deal with these mechanisms, because if we don’t deal with this, we can’t. How can we get anything done right if we can’t talk to each other, listen and and think rationally, we’re screwed.


Jonathan Fields: [01:00:08] Yeah. You know, I think at the end of the day comes down to, um, this is something I say on a fairly regular basis. Attention is life. Um, the quality and the and depth of our attention, I think in no small part determines the quality and depth and lift of our lives, individually and collectively. And I think this is really what you’re speaking to and coming at from all these different angles and also saying it’s not just about you. Yes, there are things that you can do in your individual life, but let’s zoom the lens out and let’s talk about collectively what’s really going on here, and let’s do some reimagining. And I definitely encourage folks to dive into this piece of work, because it really lays out in a lot of detail the your book, what’s really going on, and also offers a whole bunch of like and it’s not fatalistic. Also, it says this is a tough moment, but there’s hope and there are things that we can do and there are examples out there.


Johann Hari: [01:00:58] Oh, I’m profoundly optimistic that we can deal with this. And, you know, and when I get pessimistic, when sometimes people say to me, look, these forces are really powerful, right? I always say to them, it might sound strange, but when they say that to me, I think a lot about my grandmothers, who I loved very deeply. You know, my grandmothers were the age I am now in 1963. One of them was a working-class Scottish woman living in what, in the US we’d call a housing project. And the other one was a Swiss woman living in a wooden hut on the side of a mountain. And in 1963, when they were the age I am now, neither of them were allowed to have bank accounts because they were married women. Their husbands had to control the bank account. It was legal for their husbands to rape them, as it was legal in every country in the world for a man to rape his wife. And my Swiss grandmother wasn’t even allowed to vote. She didn’t get the vote until 1970. Right. And I think about their lives and how disfigured their lives were by sexism and misogyny. My grandmothers never got to have the lives they should have had. You know, my Swiss grandmother loved to paint and draw, and they told her to shut up and get into the kitchen. And then I think about my niece’s life. Now, I don’t want to underestimate how far we’ve got to go or how much backlash is happening. But when my niece loved to paint and draw, we didn’t tell her to shut up and get into the kitchen.


Johann Hari: [01:02:12] We started googling art schools. Right? Even the craziest deranged right-wing congressmen for some crazy place. Wouldn’t dream of saying that it should be legal for my niece to be raped, and she shouldn’t be allowed to have a bank account, and she shouldn’t have the vote, right? That would be unthinkable, right? Um, and so when people say to me, look, these forces, you’re saying we have to take on a really powerful I say to you, I say to them, you’re damn right they’re not 100th as powerful as men were in 1963. Men controlled literally every institution of power in the world every company, every country, everything. Right. And they had ever since those institutions had been created, except for a few hereditary queens along the way. Right. The women of that generation did not give up. They got up and they fought, and they said, we’re not going to take this anymore. And I argue in the book, although I stress again, there are dozens of things we can do as individuals right now in our individual lives. And I’m strongly in favor of all of that. And I talk about it. I argue that to deal with this in the medium to long term, we just like we needed a need a feminist movement for women to reclaim their bodies and their lives. We need an attention movement to reclaim our minds. And I absolutely believe we can do that. We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to accept our minds and our children’s minds being diminished in the way that they are right now, right? These are relatively recent changes.


Johann Hari: [01:03:42] They are not acts of God. They’re not, you know, magic. They’re things that have been done by humans and they’re things that can be undone by humans. But this won’t happen by accident if we just do nothing. If all of us do nothing. These forces will continue to pillage and raiders, and they’ll get better and better at it. And they’re already pretty damn good at it, right? But they’re not gods, right? Mark Zuckerberg is a rather weak and mediocre person, right? We can. No disrespect to him. He’s not the devil, but he’s also not that impressive. We can push back against this if we want to, right? We can absolutely deal with this. But we have to understand the 12 underlying causes. Obviously, we’ve touched on a few. We have to deeply understand them. We have to follow the example of those mothers who didn’t allow their kids to be poisoned with lead, right? There was a lot of lead. The lead industry was really powerful. They didn’t just say, oh, well, what can we do? Let’s individually try to dust our homes more. They took on these forces and as a result, you know, they won, right? We can win this one, but we have to fight. Elizabeth Warren said, once you don’t get what you don’t fight for. And of course, she meant peacefully fighting. Whether you agree with Elizabeth Warren’s politics or not, the principle is absolutely right. You don’t get what you don’t fight for.


Jonathan Fields: [01:04:52] Mhm. Yeah. Powerful point. Feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So as we zoom the lens out a little bit and, uh, sit here in this container of Good Life Project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Johann Hari: [01:05:09] To live a good life, you have to have a mixture of, you know, we want speed and buzziness and distraction. That’s a healthy part of life. But you have to have space to think deeply and reflect and rest. You know, think about something as basic as we sleep 20% less than we did a century ago, right? We’re denying ourselves even the most basic physical need for sleep, right? Which is having a disastrous effect on our attention as Doctor Charles Czeisler at Harvard Medical School said to me, even if nothing else had changed but that we sleep 20% less than we used to, that alone would be causing a huge crisis in our attention and focus. So a good life is a life where we have depth as well as buzzy moments of excitement and speed. Right? I’m not I’m not, you know, telling everyone to go to their room and read a book all the time. We want to have both. Almost everyone wants to have both. They want to be able to think deeply, and they want to have moments of fun and buzz and speed. Right? And we’ve gone way too far towards everything being vast acceleration, constant switching. And we can recalibrate and we have to recalibrate.


Jonathan Fields: [01:06:14] Mhm. Thank you. 


Johann Hari: [01:06:16] awww, I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.


Jonathan Fields: [01:06:19] Hey before you leave if you love this episode Safe bet. You will also love the conversation that we had with Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, about the way our brain works, the way it functions, the way it holds on to certain experiences, emotions, trauma, day-to-day life, how we focus and don’t focus, and also the interesting research that his lab is doing on psychedelics and how it affects our brains and our emotions and our mental and physical health. You’ll find a link to Adam’s episode in the show notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help by Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor? A seven-second favor and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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