News & Opinion

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is the 2022 Porchlight Business Book of the Year

Rebecca Schwartz

January 12, 2023

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In one insightful instance after another, Johann Hari demonstrates the ways in which our attention is deliberately hijacked, and how to get it back.

It’s a happy but challenging lot we at Porchlight have each year at this time. Throughout the fall, we make our way through hundreds of worthy submissions for our annual book awards, ultimately determining the one book we believe is the very best of the previous year’s submitted offerings. This year, that book is Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again. It’s an urgent and accessible examination of a near-universal problem.

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Photo by Gabbi Cisneros

Through extensive research and discussions with both experts on attention and those who have contributed to its decline, Hari establishes and unpacks what he views as the forces thwarting our capacity for focus. Rather than treating the inability to simply put down the damn phone and stay on track as a personal failing, Hari shows us in meticulous detail the extent to which this endemic condition is brought on by deliberate, cynical measures—measures taken for the sole purpose of corporate profit. As Hari says, “It’s by design. Your distraction is [Big Tech’s] fuel.”

For just one example, our eyeballs would not naturally remain glued to Facebook for hours at a time if not for a feature called “continuous scroll”; because there’s no end to a page, the brain doesn’t have a second to intervene, can’t tell us to stop! and go outside or do the laundry or call a friend for an actual coffee. So our impulse just keeps us scrolling ever downward, and so declines our attention, our real-life connections, even perhaps our intelligence.

In one insightful instance after another, Hari demonstrates the ways in which our attention is deliberately hijacked, and the ways in which companies and their software could easily do just the opposite. In a conversational style, he thoughtfully and convincingly shows us the incentives around which the internet and the sites that depend on it are designed—and how they could be organized around very different principles, those that not only enhance our focus but feed our emotional health and cooperative spirits as well.

Of the many compelling aspects of Stolen Focus, the personal context in which Hari situates his investigation and alarm is revealing and relatable. And yet, even as he discloses his own vulnerability to wasting hours online or fishing for “likes,” he makes a hopeful, fearless case for how we must combat the loss of human attention. In doing so, he makes clear, we can renew our imaginations and inspire our collective energies to fight for the common good. Stolen Focus is, in many ways, the book we need right now.

 

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If you'd like to learn more about all the books we chose as the best of the past year, we have a page online dedicated to the 2022 Porchlight Business Book Awards, and have produced a PDF of all the winners, as well.

And, if you couldn't watch the announcement as it happened, you can still view our virtual awards presentation online.

About the Author

Rebecca Schwartz is Porchlight Book Company’s Owner, President, and CEO, and has been in the book business all her life: for the first 30 years working on and off at the Milwaukee bookshop begun by her grandfather, Harry W. Schwartz, and then for over two decades sharing exceptional literature with high schoolers in English class. She knows that finding the right book at the right time, whether as a CEO or a student, is key to finding direction and inspiration. If she had her way, Toni Morrison and Mark Twain would share space on every businessperson’s shelf along with Priya Parker and Seth Godin.

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