Johann Hari On Our Attention Crisis
How the web and modernity are scrambling our brains
Johann is a close friend, so let’s get that out of the way. His latest subject is the modern curse of screen-driven distraction, and how to combat it: “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — And How To Think Deeply Again.” I even appear in the background in his account of how he tried to escape Internet addiction one summer in Provincetown. So excuse some of the informality and jokiness at the beginning of this chin-wag.
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips of our conversation — on whether it’s a good idea to ban the Twitter business model, and on the value of reading fiction — head over to our YouTube page.
My chat with Johann touched on many of the themes in my 2016 essay on web addiction, “I Used To Be Human.” Here’s a bit:
As I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
A reader illustrates how social media not only destroys attention, but also friendships:
I want to begin by saying I’m so thankful for having access to your thoughts on a weekly basis. I feel a great deal of comfort and catharsis while listening to the Dishcast, and always admire your compassionate tenor. Your background as a Catholic has challenged some of my narrower preconceptions and helped invigorate a spiritual flame within me that needed nurturing. I was especially intrigued and moved by your conversation with Michael Brendan Dougherty, which I’ve since re-listened to twice.
That being said, what has prompted me to write you is, unfortunately, more in the spirit of a lamentation. I usually avoid posting political commentary on social media because the harsh reactions always outweigh whatever good I hope might come of sharing my thoughts. But I nevertheless posted on Instagram a short quote from your latest newsletter, where you plainly (and relatable) describe the escalating cycle of both political fringes pushing us further apart and into illiberalism.
As a result, a close friend of mine went off the rails, essentially denouncing any form of compromise and accusing me of being a “centrist.” By some kind of hyper-aggrieved, radical-activist logic, he suggested that I am unwittingly harming gay, trans and other marginalized communities and thereby not a true ally. This was somehow his attempt at giving me a chance to defend myself before being blocked, and we’ve never even spoken about this topic before.
I’ve been genuinely depressed since I got his message. Despite being so hurt and sad, I responded as kindly and honestly as I could. I told him I missed seeing him and his wife (my childhood friend). I informed him that, in fact, the writer of the excerpt I posted is himself gay. I said I felt like attacking my character over a benign, non-partisan observation felt unfair and undeserved.
I’ve gotten no reply, and when I tried calling a day later, I was sent to voicemail. I can’t help but feel like I’ve been shadow-banned from their lives, which is crushing. This is someone I have only tried to be a good friend to, and who I assumed would defend my character if challenged by a third party.
This isn’t even the first friend who has distanced themselves from me as a result of their own submission to the radical left. Yet, these very people never see the irony in claiming that the far-right is the threat we need to fight first and foremost.
I suppose all this to say: feeling stuck in the middle is a fucking miserable place to be.
It can be. My hope is that the current polarization will unwind at some point so that friendship — defined as the radical acceptance of the other, flaws and virtues — can recover. I wrote a long essay on friendship, the modern decay of an essential human virtue, and how the loss of one of my dearest contemporaries from AIDS deepened my understanding of it. It’s the piece of writing I’m proudest of in my career: the last third of “Love Undetectable.”
Another reader feels he doesn’t have a choice but to surrender to the algorithms when it comes to dating:
In one of your recent columns, this caught my eye: “say no to Tinder and Grindr.” I’m a 35-year-old straight male who has been avoiding dating apps for a while because I didn’t want to believe that we’ve reached a point where the most basic of human interactions needs technological mediation.
But this year I’m giving in. The straight women I interact with all seem to consider dating apps the only acceptable place to meet people. Even bending over backwards to give off the most neutered and #metoo-appropriate vibe you can, if something isn’t purely social, it can be thrown back at you as “predatory.”
My gay friends don’t seem to have this problem. Running through my head with straight friends’ relationships that have started during the pandemic, the only one that started without an app was in Colombia, where dating mores are different. The following excerpt from Kate Julian’s Atlantic cover story sums it up perfectly:
I mentioned to several of the people I interviewed for this piece that I’d met my husband in an elevator, in 2001. (We worked on different floors of the same institution, and over the months that followed struck up many more conversations — in the elevator, in the break room, on the walk to the subway.) I was fascinated by the extent to which this prompted other women to sigh and say that they’d just love to meet someone that way. And yet quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. “Creeper! Get away from me,” one woman imagined thinking.
On to a dissent, a reader pushes back on me invoking a graph showing how Covid in 2020 didn’t really affect the respiratory mortality for teens age 13-18 but their deaths from alcohol and drugs nearly doubled:
Your interpretation misses two key nuances:
1) Lockdowns prevented further spread of the virus, especially when it was most dangerous at its onset, in the pre-vaccine world of 2020. The number of youth dying from the virus would have probably been higher without them.
2) Drug and alcohol deaths among teens would have probably risen regardless of policy, as a result of a (let’s hope) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Countries that had more lenient restrictions still suffered vast reductions in movement and economic activity. At least some of the uptick in youth suffering and deaths was sadly inevitable.
Almost two years later, and with much better treatments (including vaccines), it is easy to go full-on “Captain Hindsight” on lockdown policy in 2020. It is legitimate to talk about trade-offs, and less restrictive school policies are probably right. But choosing “let it rip” as a result of intellectually dishonest analysis of the past is neither sound nor prudent.
Boris Johnson has many major flaws, but at least he’s the only world leader to regularly make South Park references:
Speaking of Boris, a reader enjoyed our episode with Dominic Cummings:
While I do agree with the other Dishheads that you were a bit too gentle with him, my dissent centres on his misunderstanding of anti-establishment politics. In Cummings’ view, his grand political project — which to him has many policy virtues and wide public appeal — is sabotaged by Boris Johnson, the unserious, “useless” character leading the charge. To Cummings, it’s just rotten luck that the face of the revolution is such a dope incapable of wrestling with big problems. For someone so obviously intelligent and canny, I’m struck by Cummings’ failure to consider that for many of Boris’ supporters, his manifest unfitness for high office might be the feature, not the bug.
Personally, I approve of the economic-left/sociocultural-right agenda; I think it has many virtues and would be politically popular. (It’s also true but unsaid by Cummings that making a general election about Brexit was enormously geographically advantageous, far more so than Brexit’s actual popularity.)
But Boris ran against a number of Leaver candidates with similar positions for the Tory leadership. He came out ahead not because of his grasp of these crucial policies, but because he’s unlike any other politician — a theatrical buffoon who satisfies his voters’ anger at the system and tribal desire to spite educated London elites.
I think much of the same analysis applies to Trump — I’ve read plenty of commentary lamenting that if only he weren’t so lazy/ignorant/cruel/selfish, then his broader political agenda would be unbeatable. But I think there’s good reason to believe that for some — not all, but a sizable minority, without whom Trumpism would survive — his despicable personal characteristics are entirely the point of supporting him. These voters aren’t crying out for a serious, well-read, honest, responsible politician — they’re pissed off, in some ways understandably so, and an upstanding politician with the same policies just can’t scratch that itch.
Politically, I’m all for shaking things up a little — our institutions can certainly use some refreshing and reform. But an anti-establishment agenda based on “blowing up” a “rotten system” is so fundamentally utopian and impractical in a generally well-functioning society like Britain that it simply has to appeal to the alienated and the angry through pure emotion. This is why anti-establishment politics are inextricably linked to charlatans and demagogues, and charlatans and demagogues are generally not serious, thoughtful leaders offering alternative solutions to intractable social and economic problems.
Thanks for letting me rant. Long live the Dish.
You can always send your rants to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s a reader on the perceived parallels between Johnson and Trump:
I found your August 2020 piece “Burning the GOP to the Ground?” interesting. Personally, I’m not sure whether it would be better for the GOP to fade into history or be reformed. The last two decades haven’t really made the case for its existence, if it had, you wouldn’t have needed to write about how it could be reformed. What bothered me though is your Boris blindness, as it has in your columns for NYMag.
You talk about people who have taken their party “from the wilderness to something saner.” You then list Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, Blair, Cameron and Boris as examples. One of these is not like the others and it’s Boris Johnson. All the others started leading their parties in opposition. Blair made the Labour party look less like radical socialists and more centre ground. Cameron cleaned up the Conservatives’ image, making them less like “the nasty party.” They moved their parties to the centre and pushed the radical elements to the fringes. That is what you are arguing a future GOP leader should do, but it is not what Johnson did.
Johnson took over from an unpopular incumbent, who faced an even less popular opposition leader in Corbyn. He campaigned on a single issue, Brexit, by promising to get it done. That message was popular, everyone in Britain was (and is) sick of Brexit. But, like Trump in 2016, his win was more down to the electoral system than a popular mandate. The Conservatives had 43.6% of the vote, an improvement of just 1.2% from May’s 2017 roasting. Meanwhile, Labour lost 7.8% of the share. The 80-seat gain isn’t reflective of the change in popular vote but an increasingly unwelcome quirk of FPTP.
Johnson’s record in government hasn’t been an exemplar of the values you are advocating. The UK, and England in particular, has not handled the Covid crisis well. The ONS has shown that we Brits had the highest excess death rate in Europe. Despite these exceptional circumstances, the government hasn’t asked for an extension on an already tight schedule for trade talks with the EU. It’s why new opposition leader, Keir Starmer, has gained in popularity at a time when people would be expected to (and for a time, did) rally around the government.
Johnson has seemed distant and uninterested in the detail of governing. To his critics, and certainly to me, Johnson has far more in common with Trump than with any of the people you listed.
Dismissing an 80-seat majority in the Commons, and bringing into the party legions of working class Labour voters, as merely a feature of an electoral system that is the same as it always has been, seems myopic to me. And my reader’s claims rest on the assumption of a static electorate. As Brexit showed, the political elite completely misread where most Brits were; by championing them, Boris stabilized the system, co-opting and neutralizing the far right, without completely surrendering to them. He then implemented Brexit — which his fellows in the elite tried to stymie. His party base loved him — but unlike Trump, as I explain today, not without conditions.
There are parallels, obviously. But this is not like Thatcher-Reagan or Blair-Clinton. That’s my point. I stand by it. The next few weeks may well demonstrate the deep distinction between Boris and the Tories and Trump and the Republicans.