Can you focus as well as you’d like?

What do gym-goers think about when they’re lifting weights? I don’t know, but in recent years I can see what half of the gym-goers are looking at between sets: their phones. Some become so engrossed that they seem to forget, for a while, that they’re at the gym.

            Outside, walking along, when I come up behind a young person who is walking slowly, I guess they’re multitasking: walking and checking their phone. Usually they are.

            For years I’ve been fascinated with attention, including what we pay attention to and how we maintain it. Part of the challenge is having some control over our attention when others are trying to hijack it, for their own purposes. You might be trying to read but the children want you to do something with them. Or you get a call from a friend. Sometimes interruptions are welcome, such as when you’re doing a boring task and you need a break.

            Interruptions from children and friends are one thing. Interruptions for commercial purposes are another. For quite a few years I’ve been reading about how advertisers seek to capture people’s attention.

            For an eye-opening survey of media and attention, see Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. Wu tells how US and UK military propaganda methods were adopted by advertisers, who then pioneered more effective methods. According to Wu, the standard method for capturing your attention is to offer something for free — or just seeming to be free — and then resell your attention to advertisers. Because attention is scarce and there is competition, the race heads downwards, seeking to engage with the intuitive mind and sidestep the rational mind. From The Attention Merchants I learned a different way of understanding developments in television, celebrities, blogging, Facebook and much else. My blog post.

            For understanding how social media have become so good at capturing attention, turn to Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching. It’s a highly engaging account of behavioural addictions, covering evidence for their rise (especially via smart phones), addictive tendencies, the biology of addiction, the engineering of behavioural addiction through goals, feedback, escalation, cliff-hangers and social interaction, and what to do about it. Alter provides a stimulating treatment of gamification, in which activities are turned into games. He addresses how habits are formed. My blog post.

Stolen focus

Then I heard about Johann Hari’s new book addressing attention. I had learned a lot from his first two books, Chasing the Scream about the war on drugs and Lost Connections about depression. Hari writes in a highly engaging way, telling about his search for answers to crucial questions, drawing on his own experiences and interviews with key participants and researchers.

            Hari’s new book is titled Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. He starts with the observation that many people don’t seem to be able to focus for as long as they used to. He tracks down researchers who have studied the capacity to focus. They say the evidence does show that, on average, people’s capacity to focus is declining. Hari wants to find out why.

            He first tackles the most obvious explanation: social media and apps. You might think you are in control of what you do when using your phone. Think again.

            Hari interviewed a former Google engineer, Tristan, who says that success for Google workers was getting more people engaged, in other words hooked. This was not a nefarious plot but simply maximising income: engagement brings in more money from advertisers. At Google and elsewhere in Silicon Valley, no one thought about what they were doing to people’s attention.

            When you use your smartphone, the phone is smarter. The apps are designed by some of the smartest people on the job market to capture your attention. Hari lists several ways that websites and apps are designed that harm attention.

  1. They train your mind to crave rewards – frequent ones.
  2. They encourage you to switch tasks. Task-switching disrupts attention.
  3. They learn what make you tick and use what they learn to distract you and keep you on the platform.
  4. They make you angry, because being angry keeps you engaged. The result is that online, condemning rather than understanding has become the norm.
  5. They make you feel like you’re surrounded by angry people, though this is partly a result of getting everyone engaged.

The result is that your capacities — your intelligence, rationality and focus — and those of others are downgraded.

            What should be done? Why not just take control? Switch off notifications. Unsubscribe from lists. Set your phone to be offline for designated periods. When you go to bed, put it in another room. Hari talked with Nir, who helped develop engrossing apps and then wrote a book about how to resist them. Hari agrees that individuals can do a lot to protect themselves from perpetual distraction, but it’s not enough. When users are up against highly sophisticated algorithms designed to bypass rational controls, only a few have the resources to resist effectively.

            Hari supports individual efforts but thinks collective action is needed to bring websites and app design into a different model, one that supports users rather than exploits them. He gives a nice example of what could be done. It would be simple to develop an app to tell you about everyone in your neighbourhood who would like to go out for dinner, right now. But such an app isn’t available because it would help people go offline.

Johann Hari

What else?

A good portion of Stolen Focus is about devices that hijack your attention, but Hari thinks there are other factors, and continues his explorations. Another important contributor is insecurity. If you’re worried about your job or being able to pay your bills, then it’s harder to concentrate. With the rise of the gig economy in which many people can only obtain insecure and irregular employment, it is no surprise that anxiety levels escalate and attention suffers. Hari argues that a UBI, a universal basic income that is provided to everyone with no strings attached, would do a lot for people’s attention, and for their happiness as well.

            Another factor is your diet. Do you ever binge on junk food? When you aren’t getting enough nutrients, that’s a problem. When you get too much sugar, then after a while your blood sugar level crashes, and your capacity to focus suffers. Add to this environmental chemicals that can affect the brain, especially kids’ brains. Hari says added chemicals in food, as well as ones in the environment, are damaging to attention.

            Finally, Hari explores the way that children, in many affluent societies, are continually monitored. Due to exaggerated fears of child abductions and the promotion of “stranger danger,” many parents no longer allow their children to walk or cycle to school or to play unsupervised. Actually, says Hari, children need the opportunity to organise their own activities. Adults, by their excessive oversight, are not meeting their children’s needs.

Here’s how he summarises the impact of several of the factors he explored:

“We don’t let them play freely; we imprison them in their homes, with little to do except interact via screens; and our school system largely deadens and bores them. We feed them food that causes energy crashes, contains drug-like additives that can make them hyper, and doesn’t contain the nutrients they need. We expose them to brain-disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere.”

This is quite an indictment, but there’s only so much an individual can do. Many of the processes Hari describes are hard to escape unless you are really privileged. If you’re Bill Gates and own a small island, you can go there to get away from interruptions. Otherwise, you’re largely on your own — unless you join up with others to bring about change. Hari says there needs to be a social movement to regain the capacity to focus, a movement to support people engaging in the experience of flow in which you become totally engrossed in an activity requiring you to exercise your skills.

            As a clincher, Hari says the people of the world need their attention to deal with serious problems such as climate change. This sounds good. I followed Hari all the way with his explorations, and definitely think it’s worthwhile to cultivate the capacity to focus, and to use it regularly — including to read every word of Stolen Focus. The problem is that the power of attention can also be turned to less noble purposes such as building weapons and constructing ads. Yes, let’s join together to protect and restore our capacities to focus, but also join together for goals that help others.

Brian Martin

What is university research for?

Every year, Australian academics spend long hours preparing applications to the Australian Research Council, which awards grants to the most highly ranked projects. Each application is scrutinised by experts in the field and judged by panels of leading scholars. Before the awards are made, they have to be signed off by the Minister of Education, usually a routine bureaucratic step. However, for the ARC round for 2022 funding, the Minister rejected six projects selected by the ARC, causing howls of outrage from the university sector. The projects were selected on academic merit. The Minister was jeopardising the reputation of Australian scholarship by injecting a political assessment into the process.

(Incidentally, if the Minister is going to veto projects, why not do it at the beginning, based on titles and abstracts, thereby saving researchers the effort of preparing their applications?)

There have been ministerial vetoes in several rounds of ARC applications in recent decades, nearly all of them being projects in the humanities and social sciences. One interpretation is that the Minister is appealing to voters who think academics are self-interested and privileged.

The vetoes can also be seen as part of a wider process of channelling university research in the direction of the “national interest,” usually interpreted as serving commercial or government interests. For years, all ARC applications have had to include a justification for how the proposed project serves the national interest. Apparently the “national interest” means commercial interests: the government has been pushing for more commercially oriented research.

These pressures raise the question of the purpose of university research. Just because there are profits to be made does not necessarily make something worthwhile. The classic example is the tobacco industry, which sponsored lots of research, but only continued supporting researchers who gave results serving the industry. Association with the tobacco industry is now a source of stigma, but this was not always true.

Today, some of the most corrupt research practices thrive in biomedicine. The pharmaceutical industry carries out its own research and sponsors research by academics. Research favouring industry products is far more likely to be published. In some cases, academics are listed as authors of papers ghostwritten by industry scientists. Dissidents may be subject to discrimination and reprisals.

Quite a few scholars have pointed to the corruption of academic research by commercial interests. Findings about drugs and environmental impacts, among other topics, are skewed towards the interests of companies, harming the public interest. The classical ideal of independent, disinterested research was never achieved, but with commercial inroads into universities, the reality is further than ever from the ideal.

It is quite common for scientists’ research to be sponsored by a company or government with a vested interest in the outcome. For the scientists, this represents a conflict of interest and should make the results suspect. Greater commercialisation accentuates this problem, indeed makes it a goal. It is a perversion of the ideals of independence to encourage and reward sponsorship of research by vested interests.

Philip Mirowski writes about commercialisation of US scientific research

What’s off the agenda?

The emphasis on commercialisation leads to neglect of research that serves human needs but has little or no profit-making potential. There are numerous areas where research is vitally needed but where results are likely to be contrary to commercial or government interests.

Industrial democracy involves workers participating in decisions about how to carry out jobs and sometimes even what products to produce. Some managers encourage limited forms of worker participation, but deeper forms are usually discouraged because they cut into managerial prerogatives. This is despite research, going back many decades, suggesting that greater worker participation can improve productivity. Decades ago, several Australian social scientists, including Fred Emery and Trevor Williams, were leaders in research on industrial democracy, but this pioneering work has fallen into a vacuum.

Even ignoring the benefits of greater productivity, greater worker participation has been shown to improve the quality of working life, more than improvements in salaries and conditions. Research into industrial democracy is a social good, but don’t expect companies or governments to sponsor much of it.

One of the most exciting areas today is the production of goods and services through the cooperative efforts of unpaid contributors. The most well-known example is free software. The computer operating system Linux is superior to proprietary alternatives, and it was produced through non-commercial means. Open-source approaches are now found in many areas, including colas, drug development and solar technology. Combined with 3D printing, open-source software opens the possibility of a jump in productivity using an entirely different model: distributed production with free sharing of ideas.

In the face of such emerging initiatives, pushing universities in traditional commercial directions is retrograde.

Research into peace and human rights is vital for dealing with the problems of war, genocide, torture and exploitation. Governments spend an enormous amount of money funding militaries, including military research, collectively feeding the war machine and human rights abuses. Scientists continue research into weapons, and there is a long history of militaries drawing on university research. By comparison, research into nonviolent methods of struggle is extremely limited, despite pathbreaking findings that challenging repressive governments through nonviolent means is more likely to be effective than armed struggle.

A different agenda

Pushing university researchers to serve government and corporate interests accentuates a decades-long trend away from independent research into areas of human need. However, it should not be assumed that priorities for university research set by scholars are necessarily worthwhile.

It has long been the case that researchers seek money, preferably with no strings attached, to carry out their pet projects. They want support without accountability except to their scholarly peers. This can lead to research that serves the researchers, with publications, status, promotions and prestige, but has little wider benefit.

Within research fields, jargon and esoteric theory can proliferate, so outsiders cannot easily understand studies, and topics pursued that have little potential social relevance. In some instances, so-called pure or blue-sky research turns out to have immense practical spin-offs. Are these the exceptions?

Nicholas Maxwell, a philosopher of science, argued that research agendas should be changed from a search for knowledge to a search for wisdom. Knowledge is not necessarily beneficial, such as knowledge about how to kill or exploit people. Maxwell’s “philosophy of wisdom” involves research to serve human needs, for example addressing issues of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction.

Following Maxwell’s analysis, the goal for university research should not be ivory-tower investigations, simply following the agendas of academics, but a greater orientation to pressing social issues. This means not separation from society, but wider community participation in setting research agendas. Corporations and governments should have a say, but so should farmers, builders, nurses, teachers, parents, people with disabilities and a host of others.

Rather than posing a dichotomy between ivory-tower research and research driven by government and commercial priorities, there is another option: research agendas shaped by input from members of the wider community – the ones who should be benefiting in the long run.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Clark Chilson, Jungmin Choi, Caroline Colton and Olga Kuchinskaya for useful comments.