What We’re Reading

Two Books on Our Diminishing Ability to Think Deeply
Woman sitting next to a tree, looking out over a hilly landscape

During the first few months of this year, Earthtfire has been diving into the power of storytelling—and how the seemingly simple act of sharing a profound experience can inspire us to take action.

Many of us have had encounters with the natural, non-human world that transformed us—shaping our view of the planet and our place within it. Some of these stories are epic: Jane Goodall went into the forest to study chimpanzees and emerged as one of the world’s most inspiring conservationists, and Craig Foster, whose story is told in the film My Octopus Teacher, spent a year developing a relationship with one octopus that ultimately launched a worldwide movement to protect our oceans. Other experiences are on a slightly smaller scale: for me, spending time with farm animals, and acknowledging their sentience, led me to adopt a plant-based diet. But these stories have a shared thread: they led us to stop, to take time to reflect deeply, and to change our behaviors in order to live in closer alignment with our values.

Two new books have reminded me that our ability to reflect—to think deeply about what happened during a walk in the woods, or by looking into an animal’s eyes—is what gives those experiences their power. They’ve also made me realize why, in our frenetic, 24-hour-news-cycle world, it’s getting more and more challenging to find those clear moments of reflection.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell both sound an alarm about humanity’s diminishing ability to pay attention and think deeply. Not surprisingly, both comprehensively-researched books place some of the blame on the pervasive role of technology in our lives. The overwhelming amount of information flooded to us through our laptops and smartphones isn’t random—it’s designed to trap us in an endless cycle of scrolling and searching while we earn billions for tech companies.

As we live more and more of our lives online (and particularly within the confines of social media algorithms), what Odell refers to as the “attention economy” and Hari as “surveillance capitalism” feeds us sensational headlines and quick dopamine fixes designed specifically to lure and entrap us. Absorbing that endless feed, both authors argue, not only hurts our ability to think deeply and absorb more in-depth context and nuance. It also makes us more reactive and angry, less tolerant and quick to judge and, as we’ve seen recently, contributes to the rapid spread of misinformation. It prevents us from knowing how to connect authentically—and leads us to feeling hopeless about the state of the world. And perhaps most damaging of all, it prevents us from thinking creatively and innovatively to solve the grave problems we face today. As Hari reflects on climate change in particular, he shares:

“Human beings have never needed our ability to focus—our superpower as a species—more than we do at this moment, because we face an unprecedented crisis.”

With a title like “How to Do Nothing” you might think the secret is to power down your laptop, delete your apps or throw your phone out the window, and move to the woods permanently. As refreshing as that can sound, both authors acknowledge that “digital detox” isn’t a sustainable solution—because it doesn’t address the systemic economic issues underlying the crisis. After taking a restorative three-month hiatus from any access to the Internet, Hari shares his experience of returning to his work as a journalist, and to his presence on Twitter, and the overwhelming feeling of being pulled quickly back into his online addiction and his inability to focus. (He also acknowledges that taking the kind of detox he did requires a kind of privilege most people will never have). Given the largely unchecked power of tech companies, he argues compellingly for using government policy to disrupt the damaging cycle we’re in, including regulating tech, implementing a four-day work week, and more.

Both books provide gripping reflections on how the economic structures governing our lives demand that we work faster, consume more, sleep less, and spend as much of our time as possible in pursuits with economic value. That rapid spin of ceaseless economic growth—rather than just technology itself—is the core reason why we’re finding it more and more difficult to slow down and focus. To think deeply, to restore our creativity and innovation, we need space and time and the opportunity to reflect. But if external forces in our society don’t value that kind of space and time, what can we do as individuals to help ourselves think clearly again?

As Odell shares, “This is where the idea of doing nothing can be of the most help. For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.” She encourages us not only to seek time for ourselves, but for advocate for a shift in what we value collectively:

“What I’m suggesting is that we take a protective stance toward ourselves, each other, and whatever is left of what makes us human—including the alliances that sustain and surprise us. I’m suggesting that we project our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, noncommercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality. And I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.”

Creating the kinds of systems change that Odell and Hari advocate for reaches well beyond what any of us could achieve as individuals. But that doesn’t mean we each can’t play a role in what Hari describes as an urgently needed “attention rebellion.” For me, simply becoming more aware of the systemic issues underlying my frustration with feeling unable to slow down and think clearly is incredibly validating.

But beyond that, both books made me take stock of the experiences that have shaped me—and how the power of reflection and deep thought made my learning possible. So perhaps storytelling and story-sharing can be a part of our collective attention rebellion: let’s create more supportive spaces where we listen carefully and help each other remember what it feels like to be gripped by something so profound, it drowned out the rest of the world.

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