Twenty-three minutes. That’s how long it takes for your brain to refocus after shifting from one task to the next. Check your email, glance at a text, and you’ll pay for what’s called a “switch cost effect.”
“We’ve fallen for a mass delusion that our brains can multitask. They can’t,” author Johann Hari found out in researching his latest book. We’re paying a price for our stolen ability to focus and maybe that’s one of the reasons we’re falling for autocrats and punting on solving the world’s grievous problems.
Hari’s book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again” raises all sorts of good questions like this. The book is just out in paperback. Talk about technology, though, and inevitably some smart Alec will bring up the Luddites. “You don’t want to stand against progress,” that person will say. “You don’t want to be a Luddite.”
Can we spare a few minutes to focus on Luddites? Read people’s historian Peter Linebaugh, or Jacobin writer, Peter Frase; check out a Smithsonian Magazine’s feature by Clive Thompson — and you’ll find that Luddites weren’t backward-thinking thugs, but rather, skilled craftspeople whose lives were about to be wrecked.
Textile cutters, spinners and weavers — before factories came along, those British textile workers enjoyed a pretty good life. Working from home, they had a certain amount of autonomy over their lives. The price for their products was set and published. They could work as much or as little as they liked. Come the early 1800s — war and recession — and machines and factories threatened all of that. The Luddites — a made-up name — didn’t start by breaking machines. They started by making demands of the factory owners to phase in the technology slowly. Some proposed a tax on textiles to fund worker pensions. They called for government regulation. Relief from the harms and a fair share of the profits from progress. It was only when they were denied all of that that they started breaking stuff up.
Today, big U.S. social media companies are facing lawsuits. On January 6th, Seattle Public Schools sued TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube for their negative impact on students’ mental and emotional health. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month over the protections the tech industry enjoys under the law when their algorithms intentionally push potentially harmful content for profit.
What would breaking the machines look like in our time? I don’t know. But if Hari’s right, it’s not just the quality of our lives that’s in danger. It’s the state of our minds that’s at stake.
You can hear my full uncut conversation with Johann Hari about Noam Chomsky, the subject of his next book — a man with no problem with focus it seems — through a subscription to our free podcast, and watch my scary conversation with Hari at lauraflanders.org.