This is a gargantuan book--and not because of its size (which I'm sure the publisher limited and 30% of it is end notes). It's massive in the scope of what it attempts: to explain the degredation of our ability to focus.
Do you feel it? I sure do. It predates COVID-19, but like many things, the pandemic just shoved us forward, abruptly, on a path we were already headed down.
It should not surprise you that there's no single factor, but a multitutde, each with their own pernicious effect. Hari's effort here is so broad that many times I would think "hold up, I want an entire book about THIS"--and I'm sure that was a struggle for him, giving cursory mention to whole swaths of scientific research on a certain aspect. Hari is nothing if not thorough, by nature. But the scope of this necessitated that, and those end notes are the breadcrumb trails, should you choose to follow them.
The most important part about this book, in my opinion, is the framework he provides: our focus has been *stolen* and there's no easy fix. It is a collective problem with massive individual impact. He's careful to point out that there are *many* things an individual can do to make it better (or worse)--and you should absolutely attempt those things--but those things are accessible primarily to the privileged. And it's an insult to pretend otherwise. Worse, intentional efforts are made (by corporations or other parties who benefit) to blame individuals for the very problems the corporations created (and continue to profit from). Victim-blaming is real, and culturally, we're well-primed to blame the individual for everything--from blaming women who can't carry an endless unpaid care-labor burden for their difficulty in focusing to blaming kids with stressful lives for not being able to focus in a testing-obsessed educational system. The pandemic shone a spotlight (a FOCUS) on the fact that the system doesn't work for most people, hasn't worked for some time, and is actively getting worse.
We were all collectively suffering, and some of us are starting to realize this is not an *individual* problem.
In some ways, this is a depressing, challenging book. There are no easy answers--just a whole bunch of really difficult ones. But it's a terribly important book. Because it gives a framework (a FOCUS) to the problem, which is a vital first step. We'll need to work collectively to solve this problem of focus--just like the climate crisis, just like the erosion of democracy--and I don't know if we will. We're *capable* of it, that's certain. But I don't know if we'll make that choice.
I'll leave you with a couple quotes from Hari, to get a flavor of what he's attempting, but if it's not clear: I think everyone *needs* to read this book. Addressing this problem is foundational to fixing *every* problem.
"Solving big problems requires the sustained focus of many people over many years. Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them."
"Imagine that one day you are attacked by a bear. You will stop paying attention to your normal concerns—what you’re going to eat tonight, or how you will pay the rent. You become vigilant. Your attention flips to scanning for unexpected dangers all around you. For days and weeks afterward, you will find it harder to focus on more everyday concerns. This isn’t limited to bears. These sites make you feel that you are in an environment full of anger and hostility, so you become more vigilant—a situation where more of your attention shifts to searching for dangers, and less and less is available for slower forms of focus like reading a book or playing with your kids."