“Social media and many other facets of modern life are destroying our ability to concentrate. We need to reclaim our minds while we still can.”
Acting against attention stealing
Some scientists say these worries about attention are a moral panic, comparable to the anxieties in the past about comic books or rap music, and that the evidence is shaky. Other scientists say the evidence is strong and these anxieties are like the early warnings about the obesity epidemic or the climate crisis in the 1970s. I think that given this uncertainty, we can’t wait for perfect evidence. We have to act based on a reasonable assessment of risk. If the people warning about the effects on our attention turn out to be wrong, and we still do what they suggest, what will be the cost? We will spend less time being harassed by our bosses, and we’ll be tracked and manipulated less by technology – along with lots of other improvements in our lives that are desirable in any case. But if they turn out to be right, and we don’t do what they say, what’s the cost? We will have – as the former Google engineer Tristan Harris told me – downgraded humanity, stripping us of our attention at the very time when we face big collective crises that require it more than ever.
At the moment it’s as though we are all having itching powder poured over us all day, and the people pouring the powder are saying: “You might want to learn to meditate. Then you wouldn’t scratch so much.” Meditation is a useful tool – but we actually need to stop the people who are pouring itching powder on us. We need to band together to take on the forces stealing our attention and take it back.
I learned that the factors harming our attention are not all immediately obvious. I had been focused on tech at first, but in fact the causes range very widely – from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the hours we work to the hours we no longer sleep. They include many things we have come to take for granted – from how we deprive our children of play, to how our schools strip learning of meaning by basing everything on tests.