There is no digital detox. Why can’t we collect our thoughts

It is increasingly difficult for us to concentrate and it is increasingly difficult to sleep well. The quality of sleep in the students studied was the same as in the serving soldiers. We have reached the limits of the human mind. Tomasz Markiewka on the book “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari.

Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus it starts off as a typical self-help tutorial. The author realizes that something disturbing is happening to him. He looks at the phone every ten seconds, constantly updates Twitter, loses touch with the offline world. He can no longer keep his attention on anything, as if he has completely lost his ability to concentrate.

Frightened, he decides to implement drastic measures. He drops everything and goes to Provincetown, a small coastal town in Massachusetts, for a few months. He leaves the smartphone to his friends, moves into the house without an internet connection.

He’s going to digital detox.

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The ability to concentrate returns. Peace of mind too. Suddenly, the world of the Internet seems somewhat absurd to him compared to the nature that surrounds it. “Twitter makes you feel like the whole world is obsessed with you and your little ego – it loves you, it hates you, it talks about you. The ocean makes you feel like the world is welcoming you with sweet indifference , wet and friendly. He will never argue with you, no matter how much you shout.”

Even a reader unfamiliar with Hari’s early books will quickly discover that there is something wrong with the story. If only because the author keeps emphasizing his privileges. How many people can afford to drop everything and hide for a few months in a charming seaside town? Handle. This perspective is rarely found in typical guidebooks that try to convince you that it’s all up to you – whether you’re a well-paid writer or a cashier at Biedronka.

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And if anyone still doubts the book’s message, Hari makes it very clear when he describes what happened when he returned from Provincetown. He was able to discipline himself for a while, but gradually returned to harmful habits. During the pandemic, he was at the starting point. His attention span was as low as before he left.

James Williams, a former Google employee, explained to her that there was no point in trying to digitally detox. It’s as hopeless as “wearing a gas mask twice a week to deal with air pollution.” In short, for individuals, this can give results. But it’s hard to live like this in the long term, and it doesn’t solve any systemic problem.”

Hari’s book is not a self-help book, but a reflection on the “pollutants” that impair our ability to concentrate.

We are made by the medium

The Anglo-Swiss journalist follows the best traditions of media and technology researchers: Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. Like them, they understand that technological innovation is not neutral and is not simply a dead tool in our hands – it can influence us and our societies at the deepest level. As Postman once wrote of television: “Introduce light-speed image transmission and you will bring about a cultural revolution. No voting in elections. No controversy. Without opposition guerrillas. It’s ideology – clean, if not impeccable. Here is an ideology without words, the absence of which makes it even more powerful. »

Although Postman’s dramatic tone is somewhat over the top – he himself admitted that he tended to overdo and was too one-sidedly hostile on television – the gist of his statement remains accurate. Every technology has an ideology – or at least an ideological potential. McLuhan put it succinctly: “The medium is the message. The medium not only conveys the content, but is already a defined content itself.

The question of how modern innovations, particularly smartphones and social media, affect our habits keeps coming up in Hari’s thoughts. For example, he wonders what is the ideological content of Twitter. The answer is not optimistic:

“First of all, we don’t have to focus on one thing for long. The world can and should be understood in short and simple statements of 280 characters. Second: the world must be interpreted and understood as quickly as possible. Third: The most important thing is whether people immediately agree with your short, simple, and quick statements. A good statement is one that immediately gets universal applause; a failure is one that people immediately ignore or condemn.

Hari, however, goes further than his predecessors. Finds that technical innovations often have the form and not another form, not by themselves or by chance, but because they benefit those who have the most influence on their functioning. In the case of social media, these are digital businesses. Their founders and future bosses may hold the loftiest rhetoric about social responsibility, but that doesn’t change the fact that these companies’ business models drive them to our attention. They will use all possible psychological tricks to spend as much time as possible chained to the screen. Because the more we scroll, click and post, the more data can be collected about us and the more advertisements we can display.

Not just social media

Hari is not limited to social networks. He writes that attention problems are also exacerbated by other social phenomena. Like sleep problems.

Author Stolen Focus admits that it is very difficult to find research comparing the current state to the past, because we do not have complete data on how long our ancestors slept. Nevertheless, the information we have shows that, at least in some countries, sleep time may have decreased by 20%. over the past hundred years.

Even when we focus only on the present, we can see disturbing trends. Roxanne Prichard, a psychologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Minneapolis, after interviewing a group of American students, concluded that “the sleep quality of a typical student was about the same as that of a soldier in service or parent of a newborn.”

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And students are no exception. Our whole culture – with the cult of work, the habit of staring at laptops and phones even in bed, unhealthy eating habits – is not conducive to long healthy sleep. And without it, as a growing body of research shows, our minds struggle to perform basic functions – and to concentrate.

So-called multitasking has equally disastrous effects. In fact, man is not able to do many things at once. In practice, “multitasking” is not about doing several things at once, but about switching from one activity to another from time to time. Again, this is not conducive to building the ability to sustain attention.

Hari rightly points out that the problem may be deeper than that. Sleep disturbances or multitasking fads are probably a symptom of a “growing” culture. More impressions, more consumption, more work – more economic growth.

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In several places, Hari suggests that it is this focus on continued consumer growth that could be the root of all the other problems he talks about. It’s a shame he doesn’t expand on this thread, which makes him seem a bit added to the main course of considerations.

Political mobilization

Hari insists on the limited effectiveness of solutions like digital detox, but that doesn’t mean he thinks there’s nothing that can be done. On the contrary, we can do a lot – we just need to replace individual coping strategies with such problems with political action.

At the end of the book, the author returns to the theme of pollution and gives an example of poisoning caused by excessive contact with lead, once present in paints, among other things. As she notes, in the beginning, we tried to empower individuals. Rochester mothers have heard that their children are poisoning themselves with lead because they cannot play responsibly and are exposing themselves to a dangerous substance.

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“When individuals were blamed and asked to correct their behavior, the problem only got worse. So I started to inquire – how was it finally resolved? I learned that one and only one thing worked. Ordinary citizens learned about the scientific evidence and came together to demand from their governments a change in the law that would prevent corporations from poisoning them.”

We should apply the same approach to “pollutants” that spoil our attention span. For starters, we need to force governments to regulate digital companies so they can’t use the various tricks that make us addicted to their products with impunity. But also – in line with the thesis that the problem goes beyond technological innovation – the working week should be shortened. So that people are less tired and have a chance to sleep better.

Hari also proposes to change our attitude towards children – instead of framing their every step, giving them more freedom and creativity, for example by reforming school education in this direction. According to the psychologists he cites in the book, it would help children develop mentally and make them more resistant to the risks of distraction.

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Hari himself admits there are no easy answers to the problem he describes, and the experts and pundits he’s spoken to don’t always agree with each other on where the biggest changes are needed and how exactly they should be. One thing is certain, the problem is systemic and there must also be solutions.

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