Johann Hari (@johannhari101) is a New York Times best-selling author and top-rated TED speaker. His latest book is Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again.
What We Discuss with Johann Hari:
- It’s not just your imagination: attention spans are shortening, and finding the mental state that fosters deep thinking is increasingly elusive.
- It’s not just kids: college-age people switch tasks, on average, every 65 seconds. Adults? Every three minutes. We’ve become accustomed to interrupting ourselves when external distractions aren’t there to do it for us.
- It’s not your fault: your inability to focus isn’t a personal failure; your focus has been stolen from you by powerful external forces that have left all of us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit.
- It’s not just the internet and technology: our lack of focus has actually been happening for generations.
- Discover what Johann learned about reclaiming this focus—as individuals, and as a society—on a trip that took him around the world.
- And much more…
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The human brain can only really pay attention to one thing at a time, which makes finding focus in a world that’s constantly bombarding you with information—from every angle—nearly impossible. But it’s not your fault. Your inability to focus isn’t a personal failure; your focus has been stolen from you by powerful external forces that have left all of us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit. On an individual level, this can disrupt our ability to learn complex skills and achieve lives of purpose. On a societal level, this can keep us from achieving collective goals that benefit humanity.
It’s a real problem. But is there a real solution?
On this episode, we’re joined by Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again. Here, we discuss what’s really robbing us of our attention and what Johann learned about reclaiming it on a trip that took him around the world. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Sounds Like A Cult is a podcast that analyzes a different zeitgeisty group every week to try and answer the big question: This group sounds like a cult, but is it really? Listen to Sounds Like A Cult here or wherever you find fine podcasts!
Miss the conversation we had with Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, the primary subject of the acclaimed Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, and co-host of the podcast Your Undivided Attention? Catch up with episode 533: Tristan Harris | Reclaiming Our Future with Humane Technology here!
Thanks, Johann Hari!
If you enjoyed this session with Johann Hari, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari | Amazon
- Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—And the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari | Amazon
- Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari | Amazon
- Johann Hari: Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong | TED Global London
- Johann Hari: This Could Be Why You’re Depressed or Anxious | TEDSummit 2019
- Johann Hari | Website
- Johann Hari | Twitter
- Johann Hari | Instagram
- Johann Hari | Facebook
- Johann Hari | YouTube
- Johann Hari | TikTok
- The Home of Elvis Presley | Graceland
- The Adversarial Persuasion Machine: A Conversation with James Williams | TechCrunch
- James Williams: Stand Out of Our Light | TEDx Athens
- We Saved the Ozone Layer. We Can Save the Climate | NRDC
- Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Space Laser and the Age-Old Problem of Blaming the Jews | Vox
- I Knew It, the World is Falling Apart! Combatting a Confirmatory Negativity Bias in Audiences’ News Selection Through News Media Literacy Interventions | Digital Journalism
- Rohingya Sue Facebook for £150BN over Myanmar Genocide | The Guardian
- Steven Pinker | Why Rationality Seems Scarce | Jordan Harbinger
- Johann’s Interviews with Joel Nigg, Earl Miller, and More | Stolen Focus
- Joel Nigg | Twitter
- Earl K. Miller | Twitter
- Multitasking and the Brain | Brighter Minds
- Glenn Wilson | Website
- Should Texting While Driving Be Treated Like Drunken Driving? | The New York Times
- kSafe Mini Cell Phone Time Locking Container | Amazon
- “Le Burnout” In the Land of the 35-hour Work Week | FrenchEntrée
- The Right to Disconnect: Emerging Issues and Ways to Overcome Them | OnLabor
- Gloria Mark | Twitter
- How Distractions At Work Take Up More Time Than You Think | I Done This Blog
- Provincetown: Cape Cod’s Most Popular Destination | Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, Inc.
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens | Amazon
- Sune Lehmann | Twitter
- Abundance of Information Narrows Our Collective Attention Span | ScienceDaily
- Explore What the World Is Searching | Google Trends
- The World Is Not Getting Enough Sleep | World Economic Forum
- Matthew Walker | Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams | Jordan Harbinger
- Roxanne Prichard | Twitter
- Later School Start Times Catching On Across the Nation | Sleepopolis
- Charles A. Czeisler | Sleep Medicine
- Impact of Sleepiness and Sleep Deficiency on Public Health | Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine
- Jaron Lanier | Why You Should Unplug from Social Media for Good | Jordan Harbinger
- Alice Hamilton Hates Heavy Metal | Cosmos Magazine
- How the World Eliminated Lead from Gasoline | Our World in Data
- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff | Amazon
- Tristan Harris | Reclaiming Our Future with Humane Technology | Jordan Harbinger
- Aza Raskin | Twitter
- Shoshana Zuboff | Twitter
- The Acceleration of Addictiveness | Paul Graham
- Andrew Sullivan | Wikipedia
- Renee DiResta | Dismantling the Disinformation Machine | Jordan Harbinger
- Jane McGonigal | How to See the Future and Be Ready for Anything | Jordan Harbinger
707: Johann Hari | Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And What to Do About It
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:03] Johann Hari: You got to understand one thing about the human brain more than anything else. You can only consciously think about one or two things at a time. That's it. This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain, but what's happened is we've fallen from a mass delusion. The average teenager, for example, now believes they can follow six or seven forms of media at the same time.
[00:00:28] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people we have in-depth conversations with scientists and entrepreneurs, spies and psychologists, even the occasional former cult member, mafia enforcer, undercover agent, or tech mogul. And each episode turns our guest's wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better thinker.
[00:00:54] If you're new to the show, or you want to tell your friends about the show, I suggest our episode starter packs. These are some of our favorite episodes organized by topic. They'll help new listeners get a taste of everything that we do here on the show. I realize 700-plus episodes can be a little overwhelming. These playlists include crime and cults, technology and futurism, China and North Korea, negotiation and communication, disinformation and cyber warfare, and more. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start or search for us in your Spotify app to get started.
[00:01:23] Today, we'll explore why our attention spans are shortening. It's not just your imagination. That is actually happening. Our lack of focus is at debilitating levels and it's only getting worse. Most people never even get an hour of uninterrupted work in a single day. That is true. This is research. It is a miracle we get anything done of any consequence whatsoever. We've spoken on this show before about flow state, what we experience when we're doing something meaningful to us. This requires singular focus, not multitasking. It's almost always an activity at the edge of our ability, but not beyond it. And that's how I feel sometimes when I do this show. Depends on the guest, don't say anything.
[00:02:01] These days flow escapes most of us. If we only break distraction in order to rest. In other words, we just come home from work. We just collapsed in front of the TV to watch Netflix. You're always going to be pulled back to distraction. The better way to get away from distraction is to find flow or find that flow state. What we remember before we die are our moments of flow. Not our Instagram likes, not our other distractions. Surprise, surprise, right?
[00:02:26] Well, today, Johann Hari and I will uncover what's causing us to lose focus, how we can break those habits and patterns, and regain some control over what gets our attention. So we can, again, truly appreciate what we have. And by the way, Johann drops some F-bombs in this one. Yes, I'm throwing him under the bus. So if you're sensitive to that kind of language, well, don't say I didn't warn you.
[00:02:46] Here we go with Johann Hari.
[00:02:52] So the book starts with your godson and this somewhat tragic tale of him not being able to tear himself away from his devices. So you guys go to Graceland, everyone's on a tour, and they're just staring at the iPad that they give you on the tour. You don't really need to even be there to do it. So tell me about this. It's kind of like a boring dystopia, isn't it?
[00:03:11] Johann Hari: Boring dystopia. That's what I'm aiming for in life.
[00:03:14] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:03:14] Johann Hari: Well, when he was nine, my godson developed this brief, but freakishly intense obsession with Elvis Presley. And it was unbelievably cute because he didn't seem to know that impersonating Elvis had become a kind of cheesy cliche. So I think he was the last person in the history of civilization to do an entirely sincere impression of Elvis. So it was incredibly cute. He would sing like Suspicious Minds and Viva Las Vegas and do all the kinds of pelvis jiggling. And when I used to tuck him in at night, he got me to tell him the story of Elvis' life over and over again. I tried to skip over the bit of the end where Elvis like sh*t himself to death on the toilet, obviously.
[00:03:50] And one night I mentioned Graceland where Elvis lived and he looked at me very intensely and he said, "Johann will you take me to Graceland one day?" And I was like, "Sure," the way you do with nine-year-olds—
[00:04:03] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:04:03] Johann Hari: —you know, next week, it'll be Lapland or some other sh*t. And he said, "No, really. Do you swear, you'll take me to Graceland one day?" And I said, "I swear, I'll do it." And I didn't think of that moment again for 10 years until so many things had gone wrong. By the time, he was 15, he dropped out of school. And by the time, he was 19 — this will sound like an exaggeration, Jordan. It's not. He spent literally almost his waking hours alternating between his iPad, his iPhone, his laptop, and his life was just this kind of blur of WhatsApp, YouTube, porn. And it almost felt like he was kind of worrying at the speed of Snapchat—
[00:04:41] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:04:41] Johann Hari: —when nothing still or serious could touch him. And one day we were sitting on my sofa here in London and all day, I'd been trying to get a conversation going with him and I just couldn't. I just couldn't get any traction. And to be totally honest with you, I wasn't that much better, right? I was sitting there, 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 to me completely blankly. He was like, "What the hell are you talking about?" He didn't even remember this obsession he'd had. And I reminded him. And I said, "You know, let's break this numbing routine. In fact, let's go on a big trip all over the south, but you got to promise me one thing, which is that when we go, if we do it, you leave your phone in the hotel during the day, because there's no point going if you're just going to stare at your phone the whole time." And he really thought about it, he took a while to think about it. And he said, "You know what? I want to do this. Let's do it."
[00:05:28] And so I think it was two weeks later, we took off from London Heathrow to New Orleans where we went first. And then a couple of weeks after that, we got to Graceland. And when you get to the gates of Graceland, this is even before COVID, there's no person to show you around anymore. What happens is they give you an iPad and you put in earbuds, like the one I'm wearing now. You know, the iPad guides you around. It says, "Go left, go right." It describes where you are. Tells you a story about the room you are in. And in every room you go in, there's a representation of that room on the iPad, a picture.
[00:05:58] So what happens like you say, Jordan is, it's a bit weird. People just walk around Graceland, kind of staring at their iPads. It's a bit disconcerting. And we got to the Jungle Room, which was Elvis's favorite room. It's full of fake plants. And we were standing there and there was a Canadian couple next to us. I'll never forget them. And the Canadian guy turned to his wife, and he 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 I laughed like you just did right. I was like, that was quite a funny joke.
[00:06:31] And I turned and looked and he and his wife were just swiping back and forth and I leaned over and I said, "Hey sir, there's an old-fashioned form of swiping you could. It's called turning your head because we're actually in the Jungle Room, right? You don't have to look at it on your iPad. Literally, we're there. Look, we're 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, staring at his iPad.
[00:06:59] Jordan Harbinger: Ugh.
[00:07:00] Johann Hari: Just the minute we landed, his iPhone rather, he couldn't stop. He was just staring at Snapchat and I went up to him. And I did that thing, that's never a good idea with a teenager. I tried to grab the phone out of his hands.
[00:07:11] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:07:11] Johann Hari: And I said to him, "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 the events of your own existence. This is no way to live." He stormed off. And I wandered around Memphis on my own that day. And that night I found him in the Heartbreak Hotel where we were staying. He was sitting by the swimming pool, staring at his phone. And I went up to him and I apologized to having got so angry. And he didn't look up from Snapchat, but he said, "I know something's really wrong, but I don't know what it is." And I realized that we had come away to get away from this problem of being constantly distracted. But there was nowhere to go because it was happening to everyone. And that's when I thought I need to find out what's actually happening here. And that's why I decided to write the book.
[00:07:55] Jordan Harbinger: This is funny because a lot of people right now listening are going, "Oh, yeah, kids these days." But I'm like, wait a minute. And it is a tough topic to handle without sounding like a weirdo, Luddite, technophobic, boomer. I'm sympathetic to that. I looked up some research on this and I think you wrote about this in the book, college-aged people switch tasks on average every 65 seconds. So every minute that totally checks out for me, I'm not sure adults are much better. And of course, I wanted to find out. Adults are like three minutes. And this isn't something that like, "Oh, kids are all messed up."
[00:08:26] My parents are pushing — my mom is 80. My dad is close. They love their iPads and their phones. And their friends do too. And it's bananas. Everybody is either stuck in their phone to their iPad or the television if it's a previous generation. So it's not something that just affects teenagers. It might look obvious because we're paying more attention to them. And because they are going in to be hopefully becoming productive members of society. Whereas when you're retired your time, you feel like, "Well, I can do whatever I want. I already put in my time." It's still an addiction in a lot of ways. You're still tapping your pocket to see what's going on because you have to wait 13 seconds for the food to be ready at the restaurant or whatever.
[00:09:06] Johann Hari: Yeah. I mean, I wrote the book because I could feel it happening to me. I realized that with each year that passed things that require deep focus that are so important to me. Like reading a book, having long conversations, watching a film were getting more and more like running up a down escalator. You know what I mean?
[00:09:23] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:09:24] Johann Hari: Like I could still do them, but they were getting harder and harder. And like you say, the evidence was pretty clear this is happening to huge numbers of people for every one person who was identified with serious attention problems.
[00:09:35] When I was six years old — there's now a hundred kids who've been identified with that problem. The average office worker now focuses on only one task for only three minutes. So I wanted to understand, "Well, what happened to us, right? What's going on? And most importantly, what can we do about it?" So I ended up going on this big journey all over the world from Moscow to Miami to Melbourne to Montreal — not just to cities that began with the letter M — and I interviewed over 200 of the leading experts on attention and focus in the world. And I learned from them that there's scientific evidence for 12 factors that can make your attention better or can make it worse. Some of them are aspects of our technology. They actually go much wider than our technology. And I learned that lots of these factors that have been proven to increase attention problems have been hugely increasing in recent years.
[00:10:22] So if you are struggling to focus and pay attention, it's not your fault. You're not weak. If your child is struggling to focus and pay attention, it's not like, "Oh, young people today." This is happening to all of us. It's happening because of big structural reasons. The reason the book is called Stolen Focus is because your attention didn't collapse. Your attention has been stolen from you by some very big forces, but once we understand what's happening, we can begin to start to get our attention back in old the ways that I write about.
[00:10:48] Jordan Harbinger: It's hard to imagine being in this state for years at a time because this is not something that only — I know this. I always had trouble paying attention as a kid. And now that I'm an adult and I run my own company, it's actually quite a blessing because I can structure my days where sometimes if I'm having a weird, I can't focus on something, I'm like, I'm going to go outside and walk and make phone calls, or I'm going to go outside and read an audiobook while making my body do something. You know, I can exercise in the morning without having to worry about being late, because I realize I have to do this. And these coping strategies are there. But most of the time I would imagine most people in the Western world let's say, exist in this state for literally years at a time. You give a good analogy in the book. You say it's like someone throwing mud on your windshield. Tell me about that.
[00:11:33] Johann Hari: It's an analogy that comes from an amazing man named Dr. James Williams, who was at the heart of Google. And he became horrified by what they and other parts of Silicon Valley were doing. You know, he had a day when he was speaking to an audience of tech designers. People are designing lots of the things that our kids are using the whole time and that we are using. And he said to them, "If there's anyone here who wants to live in the world, that we are creating, please put up your hand," and nobody put up their hand. He gives this great analogy. He said, "You know, imagine you're driving somewhere. And someone throws a huge bucket of mud all over your windshield. It doesn't matter what you got to do when you get to your destination, no matter how important it is. The first thing you've got to do is get that mud off your windshield. Because if you don't get the mud off your windshield, you can't get anywhere, right?" And he said, "In a way what's happened is this attention crisis is light mud on the windshield. It doesn't matter what else you've got to do. You've got to deal with this first."
[00:12:24] I mean, I would say to anyone listening, think about anything you've ever achieved in your life, that you are proud of, whether it's setting up 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 sustained focus and attention. And when your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down, your ability to achieve your goals breaks down, your ability to solve your problems breaks down. You become less competent. You feel less good about yourself, but when you start to get your focus back — and I tried to learn from the leading experts how we can all do this — you start to feel competent again. So I think this is really important.
[00:13:02] And I think you said a really important thing, Jordan, which is hard to imagine what it's like to be in this state for years. And I think you've gone to a really important point that also comes from Dr. Williams. He argues these three layers of attention. I would argue there's four. I know he agrees with this additional layer. The first one is what he calls your spotlight. And most of us, when we think about being distracted, this is the one we're thinking about. So you think about at the moment I'm speaking to you, right? In the room I'm in, I can hear aircon unit there. It's making a noise. To the left, I've got my bookcase. I can see all my books. Out the window, there's people walking down the street. And my phone is somewhere in this room. I'm filtering all of that out and I'm just narrowing my light down to you. What did Jordan just ask me? Oh, okay. Your spotlight is your ability to narrow down and attend to an immediate task.
[00:13:50] So let's imagine that while we were talking, I decided to go to the fridge to get another Coke Zero. And on the way there, I get a text message from my friend, Rob, and I read it and I start replying. And then I'm like, "Why the hell did I come into the kitchen?" And I come back and I haven't got the Coke Zero. That would be an example of my spotlight being interrupted.
[00:14:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:14:07] Johann Hari: Now, most of us, when we think about distraction, attention problems, we think about those short-term, immediate interruptions, and they are very real. If you are interrupted, it takes you on average 23 minutes to get back to the level of focus you had before you were interrupted.
[00:14:23] Jordan Harbinger: That's forever.
[00:14:23] Johann Hari: Oh, well, most of us never get 23 minutes without being interrupted, right?
[00:14:26] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:14:26] Johann Hari: So that's one level. But above that, there's a level that Dr. Williams calls your starlight and that's not your ability to achieve just to kind of short-term goal. Like I want to go to the fridge and get a Diet Coke. It's your ability to achieve longer term goals. Like I want to set up a business, I want to write a book, I want to be a good parent, whatever it is. It's called your starlight because when you are lost in the desert and you can't figure out where you're going, you look to the stars and you're like, "Oh yeah, that's where I'm headed," right? And he argues that if we're distracted enough, we start to lose, not just our ability to achieve immediate goals, you start to lose your longer term goals.
[00:15:03] There's a level above that, that he calls your daylight. And that's not your ability to achieve a long-term goal. That's your ability to even think about what your longer term goals are. How do you know you want to set up a business? How do you know what it means to be a good parent? How do you know you want to play the guitar? Why does it matter to you? It's called daylight because you can see a room most clearly when it's flooded with daylight. And if you're constantly jammed up and stressed out and switching, switching, switching, if you never have moments of relaxation, reflection, mind wandering, your daylight becomes disrupted.
[00:15:36] I would argue there's a level of attention above even that I would call it our stadium lights. And that's our ability not just to formulate and achieve individual goals, but our ability to achieve collective goals as a society. I don't think it's a coincidence. We're having the biggest crisis of democracy since the 1930s all over the world.
[00:15:54] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:15:54] Johann Hari: At the same time as we're having this huge attention crisis. We can't listen to each other. We can't talk to each other. We can't pay attention to each other insane ways. If you can't do that, you can't deal with really big goals, whatever those big goals, you know, and the climate crisis being an obvious one. It's not the only reason why we can't deal with it, but it's a big one. So you're absolutely right. That what seems at first like a small problem, when you follow the trail of evidence, this is at the heart of so many of the problems that we are facing, both as individuals in the short term and the long term, and as a society, I would argue.
[00:16:25] Jordan Harbinger: This makes a lot of sense. I think also to build on that, solving big problems as a society requires concentrated focus over a sustained period of time, which is unfortunate for what we're talking about, which is that we can't get concentrated focus over even a short period of time in a lot of ways. For example, it's going to be, like you said, very hard to defend our democracy and resist the slip towards authoritarianism if all we're doing is losing our sh*t on Instagram and Facebook comments because of some outrage clickbait that your classmate from high school posted on social media.
[00:16:58] Johann Hari: I think you're totally right. And you've gone to two really important things there, Jordan. Do you mind me asking? How old are you?
[00:17:03] Jordan Harbinger: 42.
[00:17:03] Johann Hari: You are one year younger than me. So you'll remember, I remember, for younger listeners, you don't, think about the ozone layer crisis, right?
[00:17:10] Jordan Harbinger: Oh yeah.
[00:17:11] Johann Hari: This is like a formative thing for me when I was a kid. I'm sure it was for you.
[00:17:13] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:17:13] Johann Hari: For younger listeners who don't know, the planet is surrounded by a layer of ozone, which protects us from the sun's rays. And in the '80s, it was discovered that there was a chemical called CFCs in hairsprays and fridges that was damaging the ozone layer. And we loved—
[00:17:28] Jordan Harbinger: Chlorofluorocarbon if memory serves.
[00:17:30] Johann Hari: Exactly. And we loved our hairsprays in the '80s. So this was really—
[00:17:34] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:17:34] Johann Hari: Right? And it was causing a hole above the ozone layer in the Arctic. And so the sun's rays were getting stronger and it was going to melt the Arctic. And in fact, if it continued, it would've destroyed the ozone layer and it would've ended life on earth. It was a huge crisis. Now, what happened is that crisis was discovered by scientists. It was explained to the public. The public were able to pay attention to it. They were able to distinguish the real science from lies and conspiracy theories. They then in a sustained way, ordinary people all over the world pressured their governments to ban CFCs in countries as different as Russia and the United States—
[00:18:09] Jordan Harbinger: During the cold war, mind you.
[00:18:10] Johann Hari: At the height of the cold war.
[00:18:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:18:12] Johann Hari: And all over the world, those governments united to ban that chemical CFCs, governments coming together. Again, as different as Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, we dealt with the problem, right? The ozone layer is now healed.
[00:18:24] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:18:24] Johann Hari: I don't think anyone listening believes that would happen now. But what would happen is you'd get one group of people who would understand the science, organizers around. It would wear ozone layer badges. You get another group of people who'd say, "Well, how do we even know the ozone layer exists? Maybe the hole in the ozone layer was made by George Soros. Maybe it was made by Jewish space lasers." We would turn it into a tribal form of antagonization. We would scream at each other. We'd have very good hashtags. And the whole thing would go to sh*t. And we've got to understand the underlying reasons why this is happening because the factors that are harming our individual attention are also to a significant degree of the factors that are harming our collective attention.
[00:19:02] So you mentioned getting outraged by some negative social media posts. So I think it's really worth thinking about one of the 12 factors that I wrote back in Stolen Focus. It's harming our attention and focus, which is playing out at both these levels individually and collectively. So anyone listening, if you open Facebook now or TikTok or Twitter or Instagram, any of the mainstream social media apps, they start to make money immediately in two ways. And I learned this from interviewing people in Silicon Valley who designed key aspects of the technology we use, including some of these apps.
[00:19:33] The first way they start to make money is obvious. You see ads. Okay, everyone understands that you don't need me to explain it. The second way is much more valuable and important. And I know you understand this very well, Jordan. Everything you do on these apps is scanned and sorted by their artificial intelligence algorithms to figure out who you are. So let's say, that you've said on Facebook that you like, I don't know, Bernie Sanders, Bette Midler. And you told your mom, you just bought some diapers. Okay. So it's going to figure out—
[00:20:01] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:20:02] Johann Hari: You like Bernie, you're probably left wing. You like Bette Midler. If you're a man, it probably means you're gay, no disrespect to any straight fans of Bette Midler. I never met any. And you told your mom, you bought diapers. Okay, you've got a baby, right? So it's figuring out all this information about you. It has got tens of thousands of these data points about you. It knows you really well. Now, it's gathering that information, partly because it wants to sell that information to advertisers because famously you are not the customer of any of these apps. Your attention is the product they sell to the real customer, the advertisers. So if an advertiser is selling diapers, it wants to target at people who've got babies, right?
[00:20:39] But equally importantly, they're gathering all this information to find the weaknesses in your attention. For a very simple reason, every time you open the app and start scrolling, they begin to make money. And every time you close the app, that revenue stream disappears. So all of this AI, all of these algorithms, all of this genius is ultimately geared simply towards one thing, figuring out how do we get Jordan to pick up his phone as often as possible and scroll as long as possible. How do we get your kids to pick up their phones as often as possible and scroll as long as possible? Just like the head of KFC, all he cares about is how much KFC did you eat today. How big was the bucket you bought? All these companies ultimately care about for all the flannel about wider goals is how long and how often did you scroll.
[00:21:23] Now, that interaction with what you're saying about outrage in a really interesting way, we can think about an individual level and a social level. So picture two teenage girls who go to the same party and go home on the same bus. One of them does a little TikTok video or a Facebook status update or whatever she does saying, "Ah, that was a great party. I had a great time. Everyone looked lovely. What a nice time." And the second girl does a video or a status update where she goes, "Karen was a f*king skank at that party and her boyfriend's an assh*le," and she has an angry rant against everyone.
[00:21:56] Now, the algorithms are scanning everything, the kind of words you are using. And it'll put that first status update into a few people's feed. But it'll put the second update into far more people's feeds, for a very simple reason, algorithms are constantly scanning to figure out what kind of things keep people scrolling and what kind of things make them put down their phone. And although this wasn't the intention of anyone at any of these apps, they bumped into an underlying psychological truth, that's been known about my psychologist for more than a hundred years, it's called negativity bias.
[00:22:26] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:22:27] Johann Hari: Negativity bias is really simple. Human beings will stare longer at things that make them sad or angry than they will at things that make us feel happy and good. Anyone who's ever seen a car accident on the highway knows exactly what I mean. You stare longer at the car accident than you did at the pretty flowers on the other side of the street. This is very deep in human nature. 10-week-old babies will stare longer at an angry face than they do at a smiling happy face, right? It's probably for good evolutionary reasons. Our ancestors who were vigilant to scary, angering things survived and got to be our ancestors—
[00:23:01] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:23:01] Johann Hari: —and the ones that just stared at the pretty flowers got eaten, right? Now, when negativity bias combines with algorithms designed to maximize scrolling, you end up with a terrible effect where what these apps will do just in an automated way is they will start feeding people far more of the things that make them angry and upset and far less of the things that make them feel good. Now, that's bad enough at the level of two teenage girls on a bus. We all know what's happening to girls' mental health. People like Professor Jean Twenge had documented this, Professor Jonathan Haidt had documented this very well, but imagine a whole society plugged into an anger machine except you don't have to picture it.
[00:23:40] Jordan Harbinger: Right. We're in it.
[00:23:41] Johann Hari: We've been living it the last 10 years, right? If countries as different as Britain, Burma, and Brazil are going crazy. In the same ways, you know, there's an underlying mechanism. And it is these machineries that outraged us explicitly. In Burma, there was a genocide against the Muslim minority, the Rohingya.
[00:24:00] Jordan Harbinger: Rohingya.
[00:24:01] Johann Hari: It was supercharged by these algorithms, right? Now, similar dynamics, of course, it's not caused to genocide in our societies, but similar dynamics have been at play in the United States where I spend most of my time and across the world. So absolutely, the factors that are harming individual attention and the factors that are harming collective attention, which is why we need to get to the solutions that actually do exist to these problems.
[00:24:25] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Johann Hari. We'll be right back.
[00:24:30] This episode is sponsored in part by Outschool. Parents, do you dread summer? Because school is out. Kids are back home with all this free time. You can admit it. I won't tell anyone. They've done their outdoor camp, but what the heck are they going to do for the next 10 weeks? You should check Outschool. This is actually super freaking cool. My kids are too young for it, but wow, does this sound fun? Outschool has the widest variety of classes. Kids can learn just about anything. They can imagine. There's video game design, entrepreneurship, freestyle dancing, there's magic lessons, public speaking. Debate is a great one. They even have a stock market class for beginners. And of course, they're beginners because they're kids. There are over 140,000 online classes and camps for kids of all ages, all grades, any interest. I wish they had this when I was a kid. We had nothing like this. Outschool has live online classes and even one-on-one tutoring and Outschool provides a learning environment that is fun, friendly, flexible. So kids can connect with teachers and kids around the world through their shared passions, giving your kid a whole community of new friends. And I would love to have learned, literally, anything other than just watching TV during summers as a kid. This sounds amazing.
[00:25:36] Jen Harbinger: Outschool will have your kids loving to learn and having fun doing it. Head over to outschool.com/jordan and use code JORDAN to learn all about Outschool's summer programs and save $15 on your child's first class. That's O-U-T-S-C-H-O-O-L.com/jordan to save $15 on your child's first class, outschool.com/jordan code JORDAN
[00:25:58] Jordan Harbinger: You think 42 is too old for Outschool?
[00:26:01] This episode is also sponsored by Better Help online therapy. If you've ever considered seeking a therapist, take this as your sign from the universe to try it out. Honestly, therapy's a life changer. I highly recommend Better Help online therapy. Whether you have goals you want to achieve, you're going through big changes in your life, or you're struggling, or you have a crazy-ass roommate. You need a little bit of a breather. Make sure you're not the crazy one. Better Help online therapy is so convenient. Their therapists are licensed. They're trained. They're professional therapists. They're available worldwide 24/7, and you can get matched with a therapist in under 48 hours. I've got people we've hooked up in Thailand, doing Better Help. We've got people in all countries listening to our show, also doing Better Help. So just because you live in a weird time zone doesn't mean you can't do this. Also, if you don't click with your therapist, you can just switch. There's no additional charge. And Better Help takes privacy. Very seriously. You can stay anonymous if you'd like. I know some people were concerned with that. Communicate by video, phone, even live chat sessions, right from the comfort of your home. You can text things to your therapist anytime, right when you're thinking of it. And there's also a journal in the Better Help app that you can write in and share with your therapist. So give it a try and see if online therapy can help lower your stress.
[00:27:08] Jen Harbinger: And our listeners get 10 percent off your first month at betterhelp.com/jordan. That's better-H-E-L-P.com/jordan.
[00:27:16] Jordan Harbinger: If you're wondering how I manage to book all these amazing folks on the show, the authors, thinkers, and creators that you hear every week, it is because of my network. And I'm teaching you how to build your network for free in a non-gross way over at jordanharbinger.com/course. The course is about improving your networking and connection skills, but it'll also make you a better thinker. That's probably the most important part of that course. That's all at jordanharbinger.com/course, and most of the guests you hear on this show, they subscribe and contribute to that same course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[00:27:48] Now back to Johann Hari.
[00:27:52] Yeah, this is terrifying, right? Because the technology we use is shaping our mind. It almost means like our brains are becoming Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, which make, you know, dot, dot, dot we are actually doomed.
[00:28:03] Johann Hari: But we're not doomed. The first bit was right. The second bit is not.
[00:28:06] Jordan Harbinger: I'm sarcastic here but we really do need to take care in the tech that we use and how we use it because ultimately our minds will be shaped by these technologies. A lot of us like, I mean that's—
[00:28:15] Johann Hari: As you know, that's exactly what I say in the book. Yeah.
[00:28:17] Jordan Harbinger: My wife and I were talking the other day and she's like, "Man, it just seems like so many things are going wrong." True. There's a war in Europe, you know, for the first time in a long time. And there are a lot of things that are going wrong. But when you look at actual data based on things that are going wrong, like poverty and babies dying and all these, you know, world hunger — Steven Pinker who's been on the show, idea is actually, it's a great time to be alive. Like it's really bad for some people. The difference is that now we know about it up to the minute and we're bombarded by their suffering constantly. In addition to made-up nonsense, that's not really happening to us, that's designed to get us to stay in the app, click on the thing, and be pissed off.
[00:28:55] Johann Hari: Well, Steven Pinker is a wonderful person. I know him and I really admire his work. And he's right, that there are some really positive long-term trends. And of course, he acknowledges some negative long-term trends as well, but there's a different analogy to think about this. I learned about it from Professor Joel Nigg who's one of the leading experts on children's attention problems in the world. He's in Portland, in Oregon. I interviewed him. He's a professor there. And he drew an analogy with the obesity crisis. He said we need to question whether we should be drawing this analogy.
[00:29:21] If you look at a picture of a beach in the United States or anywhere in the world in say 1960. At first, it looks really weird to us because everyone is what we would call slim or buff, literally everyone. And you look at it and you're like, "Well, where's everyone else?" Right? What would happen to them? And then you look at the figures for obesity, there was basically no obesity in the 1960s, right? In the early 1960s, anywhere in the world, it was exceptionally low, right? Less than one percent of the population. And then what happened is obesity rose and rose and rose and rose. And now, majority of Americans, including me, are overweight or obese, right?
[00:29:58] What happened? It's not that we just, all individually got lazy or whatever the kind of stigmatizing things we say about obese and overweight people. What happened is the way we live profoundly changed. The food we eat would be unrecognizable to our grandparents or our great grandparents now, right? So the food supply system completely changed. We built cities that is essentially impossible to walk or bike around. I spent a lot of the pandemic in Las Vegas.
[00:30:23] Jordan Harbinger: Oh.
[00:30:23] Johann Hari: Good luck bicycling around Las Vegas, right?
[00:30:25] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:26] Johann Hari: And we became more stressed and that, of course, makes you want to comfort you more. So huge structural changes happened. And as a result, we became much more obese. And societies that didn't make those changes or worked hard to counteract them, like the Netherlands have low levels of obesity, and the societies that didn't like the US and Britain have high levels of obesity.
[00:30:46] So Professor Nigg said, we need to ask, just like we've got, what's called an obesogenic environment, an environment that was easy to become obese and hard to be the medically right weight. Similarly, he was asking, are we living in what he said called an attentional pathogenic environment, an environment that is systematically undermining our ability to focus and pay attention? And when I looked at the evidence for these 12 factors, I really became convinced that we are.
[00:31:12] I'll give you an example if it's okay of another one—
[00:31:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:31:13] Johann Hari: One of these causes that I think I'll be playing out, but pretty much everyone. So I went to MIT to interview Professor Earl Miller who's one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, an amazing man. And he said to me, "Look, you've got to understand one thing about the human brain, more than anything else. You can only consciously think about one or two things at a time. That's it." This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain, but what's happened is we've fallen from a mass illusion. The average teenager, for example, now believes they can follow six or seven forms of media at the same time.
[00:31:47] So what happens is Professor Miller, scientists like him get people into labs, not just young people, older people too. 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 rapidly between tasks. You're like, "Wait, what did Jordan just ask me? What's this message on WhatsApp? Wait, what does it say on the TV there about Ukraine? Wait, what did Jordan just ask me again?" So we are constantly juggling and it turns out that juggling comes with a really big cost. The technical term for it is the switch cost effect. So when you try and do more than one thing at a time, evidence shows you will do all the things you're trying to do much less competently. You'll be much less creative. You'll just screw up a lot more.
[00:32:35] I remember when I first studied the scientific evidence about this, I remember thinking, okay, I get it, but this must be a small effect, right? This is a really big effect. I'll give you an example of a small study. That's backed by a wider body of evidence that really helped me to get my head around this. Hewlett-Packard, the printer company got a scientist into study their workers, and he split the workers into two groups. And the first group was told, "Get on with your task, whatever it is, you won't be interrupted. Just do it without any interruptions." And the second group was told, "Get on with your task, whatever it is. But at the same time, you're going to have to answer a heavy load of emails and phone calls."
[00:33:08] And then at the end of it, the scientist, Dr. Glenn Wilson tested the IQs of both groups. The first group, the group that had not been interrupted, scored 10 IQ points higher than the group that had been interrupted. To give you a sense of how big that is, if you and me sat down now, Jordan, and we smoked a fat spliff and got stoned, our IQs would go down by five points. So in the short term, being chronically interrupted and distracted in the way, so many of us are, is twice as bad for your intelligence as getting stoned.
[00:33:36] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:33:37] Johann Hari: You'd be better off sitting at your desk, doing one thing at a time and smoking a spliff than you would, sitting at your desk, not smoking a spliff and being constantly interrupted.
[00:33:44] Jordan Harbinger: You don't have to tell me twice, Johann.
[00:33:47] Johann Hari: To be clear, you'd be better off not getting stone nor being interrupted, sadly.
[00:33:51] Jordan Harbinger: All right.
[00:33:51] Johann Hari: But this is why Professor Miller says we are living in what he called a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of being constantly interrupted and of course, of being exposed to technology that is designed to interrupt us, right? It's designed to maximally interrupt us precisely because of that business model we were talking about where the longer you scroll, the more money they make.
[00:34:12] Jordan Harbinger: Right. So we're making ourselves dumber, which also sort of checks out for me. It's like texting and driving and they're now finding out it's as bad, possibly worse than drunk driving.
[00:34:20] Johann Hari: Yeah.
[00:34:21] Jordan Harbinger: Right. And these companies are spending billions of dollars in research trying to hack our focus and steal it. One of the examples you have in the book is Gmail buzzing every time we get an email and whenever somebody's phone buzzes and I see Gmail pop up, I'm like, "You have your Gmail notifications on?" That's like not locking your door at night in a bad neighborhood.
[00:34:39] Johann Hari: The only bit I disagree with what you said is we are doing it. They're doing it to us, right? So these forces are doing this to us. Now, there's a degree to which we are complicit in it, but overwhelmingly this is of something that's being done to us.
[00:34:52] I think that brings that kind of raises as well for all of the 12 factors that I wrote about in the book. And obviously, these aspects of our tech are only one of them. For all of these 12 factors, I would argue there's sort of two levels at which we need to respond. That's what I think of as defense and offense.
[00:35:08] Let's think about switching because we just talked about that. It's an easy one to illustrate. I've got a, something called a kSafe, right? It's a plastic safe. You take off the lid you put in your phone, you put on the lid, you turn the dial at the top and it will lock your phone away for anything between five minutes and a whole day. I use that for four hours a day to do my writing. I won't sit down and watch a film with my boyfriend as we both imprison our phones in the phone jail. I will have my friends around for dinner and everyone puts their phone away in the phone bin, right?
[00:35:37] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:35:37] Johann Hari: And people get really stressed at first and I kind of go, "You know, it's okay. You're not Joe Biden. You don't need to give orders right now, right? Like the world can cope without you for two hours. And it's funny that they're very agitated and then you see the relief once it's begun. So that's one of dozens of individual changes that I propose in the book, which we can all take to protect ourselves and our children in an individual level.
[00:36:00] I want to be really honest with people. Truthfully, I don't think most books about attention are being honest with people. I'm passionately in favor of these individual changes that are really important. They will really help but on their own, they won't solve the whole problem. Because at the moment, it's like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day, and then leaning forward and going, "Hey buddy, you might want to learn how to meditate. Then you wouldn't scratch so much." And you want to go, "Well, f*ck you, I'll learn to meditate." That's really valuable, but you need to stop pouring this damn itching powder over me and my kids, right?
[00:36:31] So we have to actually go on offense against the forces that are doing this to us. I know that can sound a bit fancy and abstract. So I give you a very specific example that helps to do with switching. There's lots of other examples, obviously that I talk about in the book. In France, in 2018, they had a big crisis of what they called Le Burnout, which I don't think I need to translate.
[00:36:50] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, they love it. They love it.
[00:36:51] Johann Hari: The French government, under pressure from labor unions, they would never have done it without pressure from labor unions, set up a government inquiry to figure out, well, what the hell's going on? Why is everyone so burned out all the time?
[00:37:05] Jordan Harbinger: They're working 26 hours a week? How can you not be?
[00:37:07] Johann Hari: Well, they discovered one of the key factors is that 35 percent of French workers felt they could never, when they were awake, stop checking their phone or their email because their boss could message them at any time of the day or night. And if they didn't answer, they'd be in trouble. You think about that. I remember when we were kids, Jordan, the only people who were on-call were the president and doctors and even doctors weren't on-call all the time.
[00:37:31] So we've gone from almost nobody being on-call to, you know, half the economy, nearly in the US being on call. And I can give those people, all the lovely advice in the world about self-help, buy a case safe, go to sleep earlier. They can't do it, right? It's like going out to a homeless person going, "You know, I'll make you feel better, buddy. Have you considered going into that lovely restaurant over there and buying a nice steak?" He's like, "Well, f*ck you. I can't do it," right?
[00:37:54] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:37:55] Johann Hari: Which is why we need a collective solution to that problem predominantly. So the French government introduced that collective solution. They introduced a new law and it gives every French worker what's called the right to disconnect. Just as two things, your work hours have to be laid out clearly in your contract, your work contract. And once those work hours are over, unless you're being paid overtime, you don't have to look at your phone or check your email.
[00:38:19] So I went to Paris to interview people about this. Just before I was there, a Rentokil pest control company was fined 70,000 euros because they tried to get one of their workers to check his email an hour after he left work.
[00:38:31] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:38:31] Johann Hari: Now you can see how that's a big collective change that frees people up to make a lot of the individual changes they want to make, right? And of course, I go through lots of other collective changes that we need to fight for as well. Some of which are already being implemented in the US and others I saw all over the world, places like New Zealand. But often, it will take a collective change to free people up to make the bigger individual changes they want to make. They're not opposition's defense and offense. If we play good offense, we can play better defense.
[00:38:59] Jordan Harbinger: What's scary about all this going back to sort of the micro level of technology and interruption, if you spend so many years getting interrupted by technology, you start to interrupt yourself. Even when there are no outside distractions. This was scary. Basically, we program ourselves and/or lose the ability to focus, even when the external stimulus is removed. And I've felt this happening, right? I'll be focused on something. And then I will have a vague thought of, "I should do something else for a second," because I'm just so used to switching all the time, but I should just do something else right now, even though I'm reading, even though there was no buzz, there was no ding. I'm not waiting for something important in my inbox. I just decide, "Well, I've read like two paragraphs. I should probably look at another thing." That's insidious. That's not put your phone on do-not-disturb. That's not put your phone in the little bin. You'll still go, "Oh, I should, maybe I'll look at my watch. What does my watch have on it? Or like, oh, maybe I should reorganize my sock drawer." I mean, it's just like, there's things that I will do just to be doing something else other than the thing I was doing a minute ago, because I'm so used to switching that I almost can't stop.
[00:40:04] Johann Hari: Yeah. Professor Gloria Mark of UC Irvine has done really interesting research on this. If you're interrupted enough, you learn to interrupt yourself. But, you know, I really got an insight onto this. When I started working on Stolen Focus, I basically had two stories in my head about why I was struggling to pay attention. One was, "You're weak. Why aren't you strong enough? What's wrong with you," right? I bring negative voice in my head about myself. And the second story I had was while someone invented the smartphone and that screwed me over. I later learned that these are really oversimplified stories. In fact, what's happening to us is more complex and nuanced in some of the ways we've been talking about. But at the time I was like, well, if the problem is I'm weak and someone invented the smartphone, then the solution is obvious, be strong and resist the smartphone.
[00:40:47] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:40:48] Johann Hari: So at that time I was in the lucky position that there was a big Hollywood movie be made out one of my books. So I had loads of money and I thought, "F*ck it. Nothing is more precious to me than my ability to think. I'm getting out of here." So I booked a little room in a beach house, in a place called Provincetown in Cape Cod. And I went there for three months with no access to the Internet. I had no laptop that could get online and no smartphone. And I went there and it's like — have you ever been to Provincetown, Jordan? Do you know it?
[00:41:14] Jordan Harbinger: No. No. Uh-uh.
[00:41:16] Johann Hari: People who don't know it, it's at the tip of Cape Cod. Its slogan is just the tip, which I've always liked.
[00:41:22] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:41:22] Johann Hari: It's a sort of gay resort town — to give a sense of Provincetown, more than one person there makes a full-time living by dressing as Ursula, the villain from the little mermaid, and singing songs about kind of lingers.
[00:41:33] Jordan Harbinger: Wow, that's more than one person.
[00:41:35] Johann Hari: More than one.
[00:41:36] Jordan Harbinger: It seems like a crowded niche, but, okay.
[00:41:37] Johann Hari: And they hate each other as well. The two people who do that but the other Ursula is a f*king imposter. So it was a really fascinating place to go. And I learned loads of things in Provincetown, but one was after an initial haze of relief, I really felt that interrupting myself that the stimulus was gone, but I was interrupting myself. I remember reading the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield and being like, "Okay, come on, come on. I've got it. He's an orphan. Get on with it Dickens," right?
[00:42:04] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:42:04] Johann Hari: But what was fascinating was — and obviously I talk about more practical ways we can do this because the solution is not for us all to join the Amish retreat in technology.
[00:42:11] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:42:11] Johann Hari: But you know, I remember before I went thinking, you know, maybe I'm struggling to focus because I'm nearly 40, right? Maybe it's just, I'm getting older. My attention in Provincetown went back to being as good as it had been when I was 17.
[00:42:23] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:42:23] Johann Hari: I was stunned by how much my attention came back once that force of distraction and actually made lots of other changes in Provincetown that I laid to relate to the other 11 factors that I learned about in the book, but it was so amazing. It was like a feeling of becoming competent again. It was such a moving experience.
[00:42:41] And I remember the last day I was in Provincetown, there's a lighthouse at the edge of town. I'm going to this lighthouse and looking back over Provincetown, I hadn't left for the whole summer, barely been in a moving vehicle and thinking, "Oh, why would I ever go back to how I lived? This is amazing." And the next day, I got the ferry back to Boston and my friend, Sharlene, had my laptop and phone and I'm getting them back and I'm seeming really kind of alien and weird. And then within two months, I was 80 percent back to where I'd been.
[00:43:13] Jordan Harbinger: Like, you just reset right back into distraction mode.
[00:43:15] Johann Hari: I didn't go back to being exactly as bad as I'd been.
[00:43:18] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:43:18] Johann Hari: But because I still had these simplistic stories, I hadn't figured out what was really going on. And I remember I went to interview Dr. Williams in Moscow. He mentioned he lives in Moscow because his wife works for the World Health Organization. I remember him saying to me, "Well, the mistake you've made, Johann, is it's like thinking the solution to air pollution is for you personally to wear a gas mask." I'm not against gas masks. If I lived in Beijing, I'd wear a gas mask. Gas masks aren't the solution to air pollution. The solution to air pollution is deal with air pollution at the source, right? And in the same way, he said, we've got to actually deal with the sources of these problems, not just the individual symptoms in ourselves. And really so much of the rest of the journey for the book was about figuring out, well, what does that mean in practice and really exploring it and finding out in practical ways what it was and going to places that actually begun to deal with the problem at the source.
[00:44:04] Jordan Harbinger: It's interesting that science and some of your research found that the Internet itself is not necessarily to blame. Our lack of focus has been happening for generations. Tell me about that, because that surprised me. I figured for sure, this is a social media/email phenomenon, full stop, and that's not really the case.
[00:44:22] Johann Hari: So some aspects of the Internet have hugely accelerated this. But one of the interesting things is that the trend actually goes back further, which helps us to understand some of the deeper factors that are going on. And there's lots of deep factors that are going on. Like I said, tech is one of the 12 factors and it's only some aspects of our tech and we can fix the aspects of our tech.
[00:44:41] Dr. Williams, I'm quoting a lot in this interview because he's so great said, "You know, the acts existed for 1.4 million years before anyone said, 'Guys, should we put a handle on this thing?' The entire Internet has existed for less than 10,000 days," right? We could fix this stuff, but you're absolutely right if we think about some of the deeper causes.
[00:44:58] So one of the people who really helped me to understand this was an amazing man named Professor Sune Lehmann who's at the Technical University in Copenhagen, in Denmark. He did the first study that proved that collective attention really is shrinking. And he came to it actually quite a personal reason that he wanted to understand this. He was feeling really guilty because he had two sons that he really loved, little boys, and they were coming to jump on his bed every morning, the way kids do. And absolutely instinctively, he reached not for them, but for his phone to look at his phone first. He was really uncomfortable with it.
[00:45:29] Jordan Harbinger: That breaks my heart, actually. I got little kids and I just can't imagine trading them for email, especially at this age.
[00:45:35] Johann Hari: Exactly. And so he was really uncomfortable with it and he is thinking, "Well, what's going on here?" Because you know, there are all sorts of times when people think things are getting worse and they're actually not, right? You mentioned Steven Pinker who has done great work, sharing a lot of the trends, for example, the world has become much less violent over the last hundred years. And it's very good evidence for that. So, Professor Lehmann thought, "Well, maybe this is like that. Maybe we think it's getting worse, but it's actually getting better." He was working as part of a big team of scientists. They did a really interesting whole body of research looking at, well, is our collective attention shrinking?
[00:46:09] And at first, they looked at, they did a very simple analysis of Twitter. So in Twitter, there are trending hashtags. For people who don't know that means that's where lots of people are talking about one subject. So I don't know, if Justin Bieber fell into a hole now, Bieber in a hole would trend on Twitter, right? So basically in 2013, I'm pretty sure this is right, in 2013, on average, when a topic trended, it would trend for, I think, 19 hours. And by the time you got to 2019 when a topic would trend, it would trend for only 12 hours. There was a really big diminution in how long we paid attention to any one specific thing that came along, but okay, he thought, well, maybe that's just a phenomenon of Twitter, right? Maybe, it could be saying odd, going on with Twitter and media.
[00:46:52] So they did an analysis about loads of things online, Reddit, Google searches, like huge range of websites. And they discovered the graph was exactly the same collective attention to any one topic was shrinking, everywhere. The only exception was Wikipedia, which was interesting. There's the one website with an exception. So it seemed like something was happening as the Internet was taken over more and more of our lives that we were focusing less and less collectively.
[00:47:19] But this is when they did the really interesting bit, which goes to answering your question, Jordan, then they had this idea. So Google books have scanned, whatever it is, tens of millions of books, and you can search them online and they developed an algorithm. The technical term for it is detecting n-grams, that could detect in effect Twitter hashtags in the past. So obviously every year, new phrases emerge in the English language to describe something new and then go away again. So I think about, I don't know, the Harlem Renaissance, no-deal Brexit. No one had ever said the words, no-deal Brexit before 2016. No one will ever say to them again, except historians in a few years, it was just a thing that cropped up and then went away.
[00:47:58] This algorithm was able to detect how frequently, effectively new topics, new trending hashtags developed in the past. And so they analyzed books from the 1880s to the present. And what was really weird is with each decade, whenever a new topic emerged fewer and fewer people focused on it for less and less time. So weirdly the entire graph looks like the graph of Twitter from 2013 to 2019. Right now, it was sharper Twitter because the Internet's accelerated this. But something deeper has been going on for quite a long time, which we have to think about. Obviously, a lot of what I did in the book is then to explore that.
[00:48:39] So let's think about a very simple one, sleep. Sleep is essential for our ability to focus and pay attention. I interviewed many of the leading experts on sleep in the world. I'm keen to talk about this more, but thinking about it in relation to this, we sleep 20 percent less than people did a century ago. Children sleep 85 minutes less than they did a century ago, right?
[00:48:59] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow.
[00:49:00] Johann Hari: Now, we know if you sleep less, it profoundly damages your attention. In fact, if you stay awake for 19 hours, which doesn't seem like that long to me, your attention suffers as much as if you've got legally drunk.
[00:49:11] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:49:11] Johann Hari: Staggering finding, right? And 40 percent of us are sleeping less than seven hours a night. So a lot of us are chronically sleep-deprived. This profoundly harms your ability to focus and pay attention. So there's lots of, kind of longer term trends that help us to understand this profoundly declining collective attention, or there's lots of others as well that we can talk about.
[00:49:34] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Johann Hari. We'll be right back.
[00:49:39] This episode is sponsored in part by Sounds Like a Cult podcast. Sounds Like a Cult is a comedy podcast about the modern-day cults we all follow from Disney adults to Instagram therapists, to Elon Musk, super fans. Every week, host Amanda Montell, who's been on this podcast by the way, author of the book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, and comedian, Isa Medina discuss a different zeitgeisty group that puts the cult and culture with the help of guests, games, and listener call-ins, Isa and Amanda try to answer the final question, this group sounds like a cult, but is it really? And if so, is it a live your life, a watch your back, or GTFO level of cult? Sounds Like a Cult has been downloaded over 4.5 million times, peaked in the top 10 most popular comedy podcasts on Spotify, was named one of the best podcasts of 2022 by Vulture, Esquire, and Wired. Not bad, pretty impressive there, ladies. If you're fascinated to know why our culture has become so cult-like these days and enjoy inquisitive chat cast-style shows give Sounds Like a Cult a try. Sounds Like a Cult is available on all major podcast platforms.
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[00:52:09] Now for the rest of my conversation with Johann Hari.
[00:52:14] Yeah. Matthew Walker was on the show. It's episode 126, and he talked about tired driving, being worse, or as bad as drunk driving, teenagers, having terrible grades in school. And I remember very clearly myself. I got a study period during the first two periods of school my junior year. And you didn't have to show up because the teachers were really cool. They were like, "You can study at home. I don't care if you study here." So I would sleep in and my grades went through the roof because I was finally getting more than five or six hours of sleep on school nights. You know, I do homework till 11, but instead of waking up at six to go back to school, I would sleep until like eight or 8:30 and go back to school. So, adults, we know that adults get drowsy. We've all been there. Kids get hyper as all parents know and it's really pretty. Most kids are as rested. I think you said as active duty soldiers or parents with newborns, which is just tragic.
[00:53:09] Johann Hari: It was so fascinating because lots of scientists helped me to understand why this is so important. And one of them was an amazing woman called Professor Roxanne Prichard, who I interviewed at the University of Minneapolis, which she's a professor of psychology, and she's made all sorts of breakthroughs on the understanding of sleep science. But she explained to me the whole time you're awake, your brain is generating something called metabolic waste, which she calls brain cell poop, right?
[00:53:31] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:53:31] Johann Hari: The whole time you're awake is just building up in your brain, this waste. When you go to sleep a watery fluid washes through your brain and your cerebral spinal fluid channels open up and that waste is carried out of your brain down into your liver and eventually out of your body. If you don't sleep properly, if you don't get at least seven hours a night, your brain doesn't get time to clean itself. So your brain is literally clogged up. You know, that feeling when you haven't slept properly and you feel almost like hungover?
[00:53:55] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:53:55] Johann Hari: That's not a metaphor, right? Your brain is actually clogged up, right? Like, when you've been drunk, if that builds up over weeks and years, I mean, that has immediate short-term harm to your attention that's profound. If it builds up over weeks and years, it has a catastrophic effect on your attention. It's why people who sleep less are significantly more likely to develop dementia, for example.
[00:54:16] There's so many things we get wrong in education when it comes to attention, we need to just redesign so many aspects of the school system. One of them is the time we expect kids to be at school. Teenagers need to sleep significantly more and their body clocks reset. So they want to go to bed later and they want to sleep longer. That isn't teenagers being lazy or some flaw in them. That is the biological imperative of their bodies. To make teenagers wake up at six o'clock in the morning, I mean, if you wanted to ruin their ability to pay attention, you would specifically do that. It's madness and all sorts of school authorities where they move the start time to later saw massive improvements in attention and exam performance. So this is bonkers that we do. This is also cruel to the teachers, by the way.
[00:54:58] Jordan Harbinger: A lot of that was set up in the United States anyway, because of the needs of farms and factories. I mean, that was really what it was. And then, of course, it persisted because your principal who's 75 years old is like, "Well, I like being done at 2:30 and I'm awake. So screw everyone else," right? Like the administrators didn't really have any urgency. Even when I was younger, it was like, you're lazy because you want to get up late. And it's like, "Well, you went to bed at nine. I had homework until midnight, you know? And I worked out at the gym and then went to football practice. What are you talking about?" So it's a profound lack of understanding. This is a rant that I'm on because now that I have kids, I'm like, I remember when I was a kid, I was like, I will not do this to my kids because this is literally torture, getting up this early, being chronically underslept, being cranky all the time. It's like no wonder teenagers are in a bad mood. Their bodies are washing hormones. And also they haven't slept in eight years adequately.
[00:55:53] Johann Hari: You know, there's this doctor, Dr. Charles Czeisler, who's the leading expert on sleep at Harvard Medical School, arguably the leading expert on sleep in the world. He did this experiment that really haunted me. They put together two forms of technology. They had obviously PET scans, brain scans, so scanning the brains of people. And at the same time, they were tracking their eyes to see what they were looking at. So they got in tired people and they weren't even that tired. They weren't like dog-tired. They wire them up. And these are people who were looking around them and it appeared to be as awake as you and I do now, yet it turned out whole parts of their brain had gone to sleep. This is called local sleep. It's local to one part of the brain.
[00:56:29] So again, when we say people are half asleep, that's not a metaphor, right? A lot of people are literally half asleep. This is why drowsy driving is one of the fastest rising causes of death. So there's an extraordinary amount of problems that are flowing from this. The restoration of sleep is so important. Obviously, I talk about practical ways that we can do that. That involves some big social changes as well. There's a lot we need to understand about this and that I learned from these experts.
[00:56:55] Jordan Harbinger: One of the scariest things that I'd read was when you're chronically underslept, your body thinks there's an emergency, which totally makes sense, right? So your blood pressure goes up. You crave more sugar, fastfood, which also sort of checks out when you look at teenagers in their diet and things like that. There's other psychological and physiological changes that are bad for you, especially over an extended period of time on a developing brain. These are short-term trade-offs, like you mentioned, which kill us faster, or at least degrade our brain in our capacity for cognitive — our cognitive abilities, they degrade faster.
[00:57:26] And then of course, then you start mixing in caffeine and Red Bull, which doesn't give you more energy. It just turns off the switch that tells you that you are tired, which is even worse, right? It's kind of like, "I'm not bleeding. I feel great." It's like, well, you are, you just can't see it anymore. You can't feel it anymore because you took a numbing agent. It doesn't mean you're not bleeding out, right? It's the same sort of concept except we don't think about it because when we're tired, you can't see the consequences or feel them right away. So it's especially terrifying to see this because all of those things are going up and it seems like this problem is indeed getting worse.
[00:57:59] Johann Hari: It is getting worse, but we can solve it. It's funny. I get to it in a second, but it's funny. As you were saying that I remember there's this biography I once read of Elvis. It said that in the last year of his life, he had a doctor who would come and inject caffeine directly into his veins every morning to wake him up.
[00:58:14] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my God.
[00:58:15] Johann Hari: And I said this to my partner and he is like, "Oh, that's terrible." I was like, "Terrible? Where's that doctor? I want him." And he was like, "Yeah, Johann what happened to Elvis next?" And I was like, "Oh yeah, good point."
[00:58:23] Jordan Harbinger: He's the guy that killed Elvis, by the way. Yeah.
[00:58:26] Johann Hari: But I'd still happily take the risk — not really. So we've got to deal with the deep structural reasons why this is happening. And there's lots of these structural reasons. Obviously, the last third of the book is really about how we deal with them, but let's look at, you know, think about sleep, right? You can see how these causes interact. If you've had a night when you haven't slept that next day is much more likely to be a day when you mindlessly scroll through social media.
[00:58:50] Jordan Harbinger: Oh yeah.
[00:58:50] Johann Hari: Dr. Czeisler, who I mentioned, the leading expert on sleep, he said to me, human beings are as sensitive to light as algae. All of our diurnal rhythms are set by our exposure to light. And he discovered in particular, an element of human reaction to light that is really important for understanding one of the reasons why we are sleeping so less well at the moment.
[00:59:10] Imagine you go on a camping trip and it starts to get dark and you haven't put up your tent yet. As it gets dark, your body will experience a surge of energy. It's called the second surge because you also get a surge of energy in the morning. Second surge of energy, sudden surge, and you can see an evolution of why that would be really good for us. If you were away from the tribe, away from the cave, it starts to get dark, your body gives you a huge surge of energy to get you back to the tribe, to get you back to the cave before it gets completely dark. And you'd be f*cked. Great.
[00:59:41] We evolve to have this for a very good reason when it starts to get dark, we get the surge of energy, but that works very differently when we control the light. So let's say you go to bed and like 90 percent of us do you are looking at your phone before you go to bed, right? You're watching TV or whatever it is on your phone. And then you turn off your phone. And you're lying in your bed, but what your body gets, the signal is, "Sh*t. It just got dark. Give Jordan a surge of energy to get him back to the cave." Your body doesn't know you're already in the cave. You're already in your bed, right?
[01:00:11] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:00:12] Johann Hari: You're ready to go to sleep. You turn off your phone, but the sudden darkness gives you a huge surge of energy. And that means that you sleep very poorly. It's harder to get to sleep. The next day, you're like, "Oh, I'm not going to do that again." But the same pattern repeats again and again. So there's things both at an individual and a collective level, we've got to do to deal with this.
[01:00:31] I'll give an example of an individual thing. I mentioned the case safe. So what I do, so I got my friend to drill a hole in the side of it so that I can still charge my phone. What I do is about two hours before I'm going to go to sleep, I put my phone in there, I put it on charge, and then I shut it, lock it away in the case safe. So it'll reopen like six hours from then. Then I go to bed and if I'm lying there and I'm like, oh sh*t, there was that one email I needed to send. Too f*king late. I can't do it, right? I'd wait till the morning. So that hugely helped me. But of course, we need to deal with the wider reasons why people are sleeping so much less. So we mentioned the right to disconnect earlier. If you're awake, staying up because your boss might message you, that's one example, but there's lots more.
[01:01:14] Think about the fact that we are using this technology that is designed to interrupt us, right? So we can fix that. We can have all the technology we currently have, but have it not designed to interrupt us. And there was a historical analogy that was explained to me by Jaron Lanier who I think you might have had on your show. He's fantastic.
[01:01:31] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Yeah.
[01:01:31] Johann Hari: Wonderful human being a kind of Silicon Valley technologist and dissident. It's funny. Jaron used to advise a lot of movies, like Minority Report that was set in dystopian futures about what kind of technology they might have in the future. And he told me he stopped doing that because he would design some horrific thing that was like a nightmare. And then loads of technologists would go designers in Silicon Valley go, "Whoa, that's really f*king cool. How do we design that?" And he's like, "No, no."
[01:01:57] Jordan Harbinger: Scary.
[01:01:58] Johann Hari: That's not what I meant. But Jaron gave me an example from history, which I later learned a lot more about that I think could really help us to think about this. You'll remember, Jordan. Anyone listening, I guess, was younger than 35 will remember this. When we were kids, the standard form of gasoline in the United States was leaded gasoline.
[01:02:16] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:02:16] Johann Hari: And a bit before our time, people used to paint their homes the whole time with leaded paint and it had been known going right back to the 1920s, an amazing scientist called Dr. Alice Hamilton warned. I mean, one of the most prescient people in history said lead gasoline is going to be a disaster because exposure to lead is really bad for people's brains. If it's in the gasoline, it'll be in the air. Everyone will breathe it in. Don't do it. There was actually a much safer form of gasoline that didn't have lead in it. But the lead industry basically mansplained her out of the room, shut her up, ignored her. And there was exposure to lead. And the evidence shows very clearly that exposure to lead is really bad for your brain and particularly bad for children's ability to focus and pay attention. And by the 1970s, this was just undeniable.
[01:03:00] So what happened is a group of ordinary moms who called themselves housewives back then banded together. And said, "Why the f*ck are we allowing this? Why are we allowing a for-profit industry to screw up our children's brains? This is crazy." And it's important to understand what those moms didn't demand. They didn't say, "So let's ban all paint." They didn't say, "So let's ban all gasoline." They said, "Let's ban this specific component in the petrol and in the paint that is harming our children's ability to focus and pay attention."
[01:03:29] Really important to remember that because, in the same way, we don't want to get rid of all technology. We like technology. Just like they like petrol and paint, we want to get rid of the components that are designed to harm our attention. Okay, so these moms, they fought like hell for their children to ban leaded gasoline and it took them years and they were ridiculed. And then they won. What's that thing Gandhi said? "First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." Right?
[01:03:54] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:03:54] Johann Hari: They won. As a result, the CDC, the Center for Disease Control has calculated, the average American child is three to five IQ points higher than they would've been had we not banned lead gasoline. Now, to me, this is a really important model for almost all of the 12 factors that are harming our attention and focus. Obviously, we're focusing on a handful of them here. What they did, they identify a pathogen in the environment that's harming our attention. They band together collectively. They get that pathogen out of the environment. That was a really interesting model for us as we think about these other 12 factors.
[01:04:28] So think about what I was saying before about tech, right? And this was something that took me a long time to get my head around. I had to interview a lot of people who designed key aspects of the world in which we live to really understand it. It's not tech per se, that is harming your ability to focus and pay attention. It's the underlying business model around which these apps are currently based. At the moment, the longer you scroll, the more money they make. But it doesn't have to work that way.
[01:04:55] Jordan Harbinger: It could be the opposite. Like we could design tech, instead of to capture as much of our attention as possible, we could design it to do the inverse, right? We don't do that because of surveillance capitalism. I'm sure you've seen that book, right? Companies make money when we're distracted and sucked in and they learn more about us. They use that data to market, to us and to others. So it's yeah, it's by design. It's not just you, it's the phone. It's not just the Internet. It's the way the Internet has been designed. And it's not about being pro-tech or anti-tech because I know some people are thinking about that. It's like, what technology are you using? And for what purposes?
[01:05:25] And that's what I talked about with Tristan Harris. And that episode specifically, there'll be a trailer for it at the end of this one, things like negativity bias, how the algorithms do this deliberately. And it's a problem, right? It's a bigger problem than we know. Now, we see like the Facebook whistle-blowers, where they don't even care about literal neoNazis and the destruction of democracy. So it's like, "Well, why are they going to care about distraction if they don't care about that? But then we get into like the anti-big tech rent, which maybe we don't.
[01:05:52] Johann Hari: Well, just like the lead industry, it was never going to go — you know what guys? I think we should stop poisoning kids' brains. Let's stop doing it. We've made enough money. Enough. They were never going to do that. They had to be made to do it by this movement of ordinary moms. In the same way, the tech industry is not going to solve this problem.
[01:06:08] Even though, by the way, many of the people who work in the tech industry — obviously, Tristan is one of the great heroes of our time in my view, and as a friend of mine, you know, even though many of the people who work in the tech industry are profoundly uncomfortable in what they're doing, they're part of this bigger machinery, right? There's plenty of people who work at ExxonMobil, they were uncomfortable about global warming. The machinery has to be what changes, not just changing individual minds within the company.
[01:06:32] One of the people who really helped me to understand this is a guy called Aza Raskin, who designed a key aspect of how many websites work. His dad, Jeff Raskin, invented the Apple Mac for Steve Jobs. And Aza said to me, "Look, if you want to see what the equivalent of the lead in the lead paint is, it's very simple. Ban surveillance capitalism." This is a turn that comes from Professor Shoshana Zuboff at Harvard. So that business model where the longer you scroll, the more money they make, because they're tracking you to gather information about you to sell it to the highest bidder, to sell your attention. He said, "Look, solution is simple. Just say that a business model based are secretly surveilling you in order to find out the weaknesses in your attention and hacking them is unethical. It's immoral. It's like lead in lead paint. It's banned. We don't tolerate it."
[01:07:16] Okay. Let's imagine we do this, right? Imagine tomorrow we ban surveillance capitalism and I opened Facebook. Would it just say, "Sorry guys, we've gone fishing"? He said, "Of course, not." What would happen is they'd have to move to a different business model and almost everyone listening will have to experience those two alternative business models. One alternative business model is subscription. We all know how HBO, Netflix work. You pay a certain amount, you get access. Or think about the sewage pipes. Before we had sewage pipes, we had sh*t in the streets. We got cholera, we got terribly sick. So we all paid to build the sewers together and we all own the sewers together and we maintained the sewers together. Now, it might be that like, we want to own the sewage pipes together to prevent cholera that we want to own the information pipes together because we're getting the equivalent of cholera for our minds, for our attention, for our politics.
[01:08:07] But crucially, whichever of these two alternative models you adopt or maybe there's a third model that hasn't been thought of yet, and so we're thinking about that, whichever of these alternative business models you adopt, the key thing to understand is all the incentives change. At the moment, all the incentives are to find the best ways to hack your attention and keep you scrolling as much as possible and interrupt you as much as possible because you are not the customer, right?
[01:08:29] Jordan Harbinger: You're the product, not the customer. Yeah.
[01:08:31] Johann Hari: In these different models, subscription or some form of public ownership, independent of government, it be very important to make sure it was independent of government like the BBC in Britain, all the incentives change. Suddenly, they're not like, "How do we hack Jordan in order to keep him scrolling?" Suddenly, they're like, "Oh, Jordan is our customer now, what does Jordan want? It turns out Jordan feels good when he meets up with his friends and looks into their eyes, right? Great. Let's design our app, not to keep him doomscrolling, but to maximize people meeting up offline. Oh, it turns out Jordan likes it when he can pay attention. Let's design our app, not to hack his attention, but to heal his attention."
[01:09:05] Now, the technology exists to do that. My friends in Silicon Valley, the people, you know, Silicon valley, they could do that tomorrow, right? Tristan and Aza could design that Facebook in a week, right? But it will only happen at the incentives of there. And that requires a profound shift in consciousness. We need to stop blaming ourselves and we need to stop only asking for tiny tweaks, although many tiny tweaks are worth fighting for.
[01:09:26] We are not medieval peasants begging at the court of King Zuckerberg and King Musk for a few little crumbs of attention from their table. We are the free citizens of democracies and we own our own minds and we can take them back. And it's really important we get to do this fast. We need to have an attention movement equivalent to the feminist movement or the movement for equality for gay people. Because at the moment, we're in a race. On the one side, you've got all of these 12 factors that are invading our attention and focus. And many of them on the current trajectory are going to become more powerful.
[01:10:01] Paul Gray, one of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley said, "The world is on course to be more addictive in the next 40 years than it was in the last 40." Think about how much more addictive TikTok is to your kids than Facebook. Right now, imagine the next crack-like iteration of TikTok in the metaverse. Okay. That's one side of the race, and this is true, by the way of many of the factors. The food we eat is profoundly harming our ability to focus and pay attention. That's becoming more addictive. There's loads of these factors. On the other side, there's got to be a movement of all of us saying, "No. No, you don't get to do this to us. No, that is not a good life. No, we don't want a world where we can only focus for 65 seconds or three minutes. We choose a life where we can pay attention, where we can read books, where our kids can play outside. We choose focus," right?
[01:10:51] I go through all sorts of places that have begun that fight from France to New Zealand. I've been to them. These are not science fiction creations. I've been to Long Island where there's an amazing program that's restoring children's attention. I've been to places that are doing this. We can absolutely achieve it, but you don't get what you don't fight for. And we've got to decide we value focus. We want to fight for it. I absolutely believe we can get this back. If we just don't act these forces invading our attention will continue to act and they'll become more and more sophisticated. So we got to act in our own defense in our children's defense, pretty urgently, I would say.
[01:11:27] Jordan Harbinger: Johann, thank you very much fascinating conversation. You know, it sounds like we didn't end on a high note, but we kind of did because we really can take control and take the reins. And like you said, say no, and start with one controlling what we use and what we take in, but also paying attention to what we allow in our society.
[01:11:44] Johann Hari: I know a lot of people listening will be thinking, "Yeah, that sounds right, but how are we going to achieve any progress on this, right? These are such big fights." And I think that sometimes, but when I think that I particularly think about a friend of mine, a lot of your listeners will have heard of him. His name is Andrew Sullivan, a brilliant journalist. Andrew was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1999 at the height of the AIDS crisis. But as far as anyone knew, there was no hope in sight. They didn't know protease inhibitors which is on the horizon. So Andrew was like, "Okay, I'm about to die. I've maybe got a couple of years to live." His best friend, Patrick had just died of AIDS. So he quit his job as editor of The New Republic. And he went to Provincetown to die and he thought, "Well before I die, I'm going to do one last thing. I'm going to write a book about a crazy utopian idea that nobody has ever written a book advocating before." And he thought, "Well, I won't live to see this idea put into practice. No one alive today will live to see it. But maybe someone somewhere down the line will find this book and pick up this idea." The idea that Andrew wrote the first book to ever advocate for was gay marriage.
[01:12:50] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[01:12:50] Johann Hari: When I get depressed, I try to imagine going back in time to Provincetown in 1994 and saying to Andrew, "Okay, Andrew, you're not going to believe me, but 26 years from now, A, you'll be alive," that would've blown his mind. "B, you'll be married to a man," that would've stunned him. "C, I'll be with you when the Supreme Court of the United States quotes this book you're writing when it makes it mandatory for every state in the United States to introduce gay marriage. And the next day, you'll be invited to the White House, lit up in the colors of the rainbow flag to have dinner with the president to celebrate what you and so many others people have achieved. Oh, and by the way that president, he's going to be black." Every aspect of that would have sounded like the most ludicrous science fiction we had.
[01:13:37] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:13:38] Johann Hari: 2000 years of gay people being imprisoned, persecuted burned, and in a very short space of time — and don't want to underestimate how much further we've got to go. We've all seen what's been happening in Florida and other places — but a staggering level of progress, right? It would be like me saying to you, "So Jordan, 26 years from now, a trans president is going to invite us to the Oval Office to smoke crack with her while she bans TikTok, right?"
[01:14:01] Jordan Harbinger: I don't know if that's progress though.
[01:14:03] Johann Hari: Not that we want that. I mean the trans president, yes. Not the crack or the banning — but incredible things become possible when enough people band together and fight for them in a spirit of love and compassion, right? I'm passionately in favor of equality for gay people, of course, but that affects a very small part of the population. This affects all of us, right? There is a potential coalition of everyone except Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, right?
[01:14:26] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:14:26] Johann Hari: This is a pretty — and the owners, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom and the other people who own Instagram, right? This is a huge potential coalition. Everyone can feel this happening to them. We have a coalition that stretches from the far right to the far left and everyone in between. We all know this is important. Everyone feels sick to their stomach when they see that their kids can't focus and they feel their own attention beginning to crumble. We can deal with this. I'm absolutely optimistic that we can deal with this. I've seen the solutions, right? They're not rocket science on all of the 12 factors.
[01:14:59] I went to places somewhere in the world that was building the solutions. So I want to really leave people with a sense of hope and optimism. At a time of profound darkness, remember that we are all the beneficiaries of people who fought, people who came before us, who fought to make our lives better, we've got to do that now for ourselves and for the people who come after us.
[01:15:18] Jordan Harbinger: That is inspiring and you are, you're good at delivering that, man. That's got to be a part of your keynote, eh?
[01:15:23] Johann Hari: Hooray. And I'm also meant to say all my publishers tease me, anyone who wants to find out what Oprah, Hillary Clinton, and lots of other people have said about the book, if they want to find out where to buy it, the audiobook, the ebook, or the physical book, if they go to stolenfocusbook.com, they can also see — it always sounds ironic because I'm hardly on social media.
[01:15:41] Jordan Harbinger: I want to find out what Mark Zuckerberg has to say about it, yeah.
[01:15:45] Johann Hari: It's funny. I got in trouble at the end of an interview a while back because I'm hardly on social media now, but an interviewer, he was a 50-year-old guy, this is relevant, said to me at the end of an interview, a while back, he said, "So what's your Twitter?" and I said it. And he said, "What's your Facebook?" and I said it. And he said, "What's your Instagram?" and I said it. And then he said, "What's your Snapchat?" and I said, "I am a 43-year-old man. The only 43-year-old man on Snapchat are definitely pedophiles or something like that." And he didn't laugh. And I have this very bad habit of when someone doesn't laugh at a joke, I'm leaning into it.
[01:16:15] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[01:16:16] Johann Hari: So I said, "You know, that show To Catch a Predator?" I said, "The next season of To Catch a Predator should literally just be, they go up to adult men in the street and say, 'What is your Snapchat handle?' And if they have one f*king throw them in the van, right?" Anyway, the guy didn't laugh at all. I later looked it up. He's a 50-year-old man who's quite active on Snapchat. Sorry.
[01:16:34] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, sure.
[01:16:35] Johann Hari: I'm really glad, Jordan, that we got through this interview without me accidentally accusing you of being a pedophile. That's my—
[01:16:40] Jordan Harbinger: No, no.
[01:16:41] Johann Hari: —my new bar for all interviews, but I really enjoyed this. Thank you. This sounds like an ironic compliment, but I really appreciate you paying much attention to this subject and engaging with the book so deeply. And I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you.
[01:16:52] Jordan Harbinger: Likewise, man. Thank you so much.
[01:16:54] Johann Hari: Hooray. And people should definitely listen to the interview with Tristan because he's a f*king hero.
[01:16:57] Jordan Harbinger: Yep. And there'll be a trailer for it right after the show.
[01:16:59] Johann Hari: Horray. What more could you want?
[01:17:03] Jordan Harbinger: You're about to hear a preview of The Jordan Harbinger Show with former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris, who helped build social media as we know it, and is now sounding alarms on its issues.
[01:17:14] Tristan Harris: YouTube is an engagement platform, TikTok is an engagement platform, Snapchat is an engagement platform because what they have in common is predating on human behavior and human attention as a commodity. It's an extractive business model that's like the Exxon of human anxiety. It pumps human anxiety. And drives a profit from the turning of human beings into predictable behavior. And predictable behavior means the seven deadly sins, the worst of us. We're worth more when we're the product as dead slabs of human behavior than we are as free-thinking individuals who are living our lives.
[01:17:47] When you are scrolling a newsfeed, you have a supercomputer that's pointed at your brain. They know everything about your psychological weaknesses that you don't even know about yourself. If I had TikTok open on my phone and I watched one video and I said, "Well, that's kind of funny," and I'll scroll to the next one, who's really the author of the choice?
[01:18:04] TikTok and Instagram, both have programs to actively cultivate the influencer lifestyle and make that as attractive as possible because we are worth more when we are addicted, outraged, polarized, anxious, misinformed, validation-seeking, and not knowing what's true. I think it's pretty easy to see that a society in which it's more profitable for each person to be addicted narcissistic, distracted, confused about reality, not knowing what's true, that is not a society that can solve its problem. That is not a society that can solve climate change. That is not a society that can escape pandemics or agree on anything. And that is incompatible with the future that we want to live in. We need a society that is consciously using tech to make a stronger, healthier, better 21st-century open society.
[01:18:48] And we either do that or we call the American experiment over, I think.
[01:18:53] Jordan Harbinger: To hear how technology is hacking and hijacking human brains and attention spans, check out episode 533 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:19:04] Now, we've heard some of this on the show before, especially with respect to social media, distraction, productivity. I know from my own research that Americans are reading for pleasure, well, far less than ever before. No big surprise. I guess I'm one of those people. Although I read probably around a hundred books a year for the show, then again, I do like doing the show and preparing for it. So it's an interesting, but very beneficial overlap for me, right? It's work. But it's also something that doesn't feel like work.
[01:19:30] I mostly read audio, but many of us read on screens, which has its own issues. He talks about this in the book as well. Screen reading contaminates book reading, and it becomes harder. There's various reasons for this, the way your eyes work and your brain works and all that. And that's aside from all the things that pop up and steal our focus sometimes, literally, whether it's an email or a text notification or just the temptation to pop open a web browser and seek stimulation elsewhere.
[01:19:53] I know for me, it's hard to sit down in front of something that has Internet. And just focus on it. Even in email, I'll take a break in the middle and be like, "What's this thing going on?" And I'll Google it. It's ridiculous. And I find that I'm more focused than most people I get more done anyway.
[01:20:07] In the book, Johann also discusses some research that explains how reading fiction, so novels, it's like an empathy gym that makes us better socially. I found this really fascinating. This was surprising as well. It's actually something I assumed was junk science or one of those weird headlines with nothing behind it. It turns out that reading fiction, something I never do by the way, creates a unique form of consciousness. We're actually seeing the world through someone else's mind's eye, and you can see inside somebody else's perspective or through somebody else's perspective, this carries over into the real world as well. So maybe I'd be a little bit nicer or at least a little bit more empathetic if I read some more fiction. I'm going to have to put a pin in that.
[01:20:48] As for distraction and social media, sure, sometimes the gamification and algorithms can be helpful. Like Duolingo pitting me against friends and strangers for leaderboards to learn Chinese or German. That works really, really well. Even if you know what they're doing, it's very hard to resist, but there's another side to that coin, right? We're just at the beginning of surveillance capitalism. It will get worse. These big tech companies will be spying on us more and more and more. We've talked about this in other episodes of this show with Renee DiResta and some of these other people blowing the whistle on these companies.
[01:21:21] Coming soon to an advertisement near you, style transfer, they, the ubiquitous they, will read all of your email or your Gmail. They will write ads to you using AI that sounds just like you, and of course, are therefore super persuasive. I mean, if they were written to me from me, probably sound pretty familiar and trustable. Like when I spoke with Jane McGonigal earlier on this show about AI people who are a blend of say, your mother and your spouse, and maybe even you, and they're selling you a freaking blender online or something like that. Trust would go through the roof and you think, oh, well, we're going to acclimate to that. Maybe, but is that going to then create an environment of distrust between people we know? Are we going to be able to separate that or are we just going to be somewhat helpless in the face of this new advertising? And if we do build defenses, how long is that going to take or do we need to make laws against this and how do we even do that? That episode with Jane McGonigal is episode 6-9-0, 690.
[01:22:19] By the way, this stuff makes our current level of surveillance capitalism look like Atari or Space Invaders compared to Xbox and modern games that look like movies. So it seems like since the Internet gives us more hits of dopamine faster and more rapid sequences than real life does, our devices call us from real life whenever real life slows down. But it's precisely that slow down in real life that allows us to enjoy it in the first place.
[01:22:45] I hope y'all enjoyed that. All things book-related will be in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com. Books are at jordanharbinger.com/books. And hey, if you're going to buy a book from a guest on the show, please do use our website links. That stuff adds up. Help support the show. Transcripts are also in the show notes. Videos are up on YouTube. All of our advertisers, our deals, our discount codes, you don't have to write any of that down. It's all at jordanharbinger.com/deal. Please consider supporting those who support the show. I do rely on you for that. And I thank you for that in advance.
[01:23:15] I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, where you can connect with me on LinkedIn. I enjoy connecting with you. I like hearing from you. I like responding to all of you and I say all, but it's really there's 0.1 percent of you that are just nuts. I could pass on y'all but the rest of you, please do reach out. I'd love to hear from you.
[01:23:32] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships, using systems, software, and tiny habits, the same stuff I use to maintain my network. That is our Six-Minute Networking course. That course is free. I don't need your credit card number. There's no gross upsells or tricks in there. I'm teaching you how to dig the well before you get thirsty. That's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And most of the guests who hear on the show, they're in that course, they're contributing. They're helping out in there. You'll be in smart company where you belong. Come join us.
[01:24:00] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who needs to focus, or maybe who wonder why we don't or why they can't, share this episode with them. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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