On Recovering Your Deteriorating Ability to Focus in the Attention Economy

The attention economy is destroying our ability to read books.

Of course, books aren’t the only hobby being destroyed by our inability to focus. How many of you reading this have struggled to sit through a Netflix TV series or whatever of the bajillion streaming services are out there, and just sat there, without scrolling IMDb on your phone or switched between 10 tabs of Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr (for the six people who still use Tumbr) and even Yahoo Answers (rip in pieces)? Have you gone to watch that VERY important YouTube video about ‘This 1 thing will stop procrastination in its tracks’ or The Ultimate Blog Post on Neat Writing Tips to keep you inspired, then suddenly you’re reading the Wikipedia article about Thomas Mayne, the inventor of Milo, then you’re scrolling down the endless loop of 1800s crazy cat ladies posing with their cats on Reddit, and holy shit, where have all those hours gone? It’s 3am and you’ve got to get ready for the day in a couple hours, and you haven’t written a single word of your magnum opus or read a single page of everyone’s favourite book of the minute, Madeline Miller’s Circe, and instead you got stuck on the Wikipedia article about 1800s Shakespearean actors who are the godmother of pre-WWI European poets.

Say hello to the attention economy.

Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube put billions of dollars towards keeping you hooked on their slot machine lucky dip powerhouses. It’s a very lucrative business model, and any site or app that isn’t willing to maintain this new status quo will find themselves quickly floundering. Legacy or traditional media is one such group, stuck in the past, in denial that they’re going the way of Blockbuster and taxis. Nobody was complaining at the start, because the internet superhighway was this amazing, fantastical place where you could click on hyperlinks and view glorious pictures all in the comfort of your own home, without even needing to bother venturing to bookstores or libraries. You can do it all at home! The entire breadth of human history soon became available in the palm of our hands, and we mostly use it to watch cat videos, get annoyed at people a whole planet away, and read about the stupid things that aunt we haven’t seen face-to-face in at least a decade is Boomerposting.

The attention economy—the business model of keeping our eyes glued to the specific apps and sites maintained by those with vested interests who do not care about our health and wellbeing—it’s probably even destroyed your ability to read a blog post like this. So let me keep this simple:

You go to pick up Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuistion because you were hyped by a BookTuber to read it. You sit down. Fluff up your pillows. Your cat curls up on your lap and purrs contentedly. Open up the book. Read the first line. I don’t have much of a desire to read the book, but from the Amazon page, (after scrolling four pages of just the title) I see the opening lines, “On the White House roof”. Your wind manders. What did said BookTuber even rate the book on Goodreads? Damn, I really need to wash the dishes. Hmm, brownies make the perfect reading food. I should bake brownies. You try another half-line, “tucked into a corner”. Your mind blanks, and you reread the half-sentence again. Buzzing. Thoughts rush in. That time you called your schoolteacher “mum” in class. No, not thoughts! I can’t stand having thoughts. Go away! you shout to the thoughts, startling your cat, who jumps up and runs off in confusion and bewilderment.

The unfortunate reality is that we as a society are losing the ability to focus on one thing at a time
Patricia, A Small Wardrobe

And that’s when we run to our comfort apps and websites, the ones who soothe us from uncomfortable thoughts, from focusing on one thing at a time, because over such a short period of time, we have become unaccustomed to not doing everything all at once. To being in the present. And it’s not an “us” problem that can quickly be fixed by simply not using the internet anymore. Because that’s not feasible. In a book I started in 2019 and also again in May 2021, it says this is more than that. This is about algorithms hijacking our brains and rewiring our neural circuitry. Sure, it can be fixed, but it takes a lot of effort, and most people are frightened of change. Of sitting with discomfort. Anyone with anxiety can understand that it’s not a simple task to just sit there, with no stimuli and nothing to distract and self-soothe, and just let your thoughts be. Meditation. Stillness meditation. Simply just letting your thoughts appear and pass by. Not trying to distract, because you’re avoiding the real issues. I’m sorry I don’t have a quick 10-point dot list tips to help you improve your attention and memory and focus, because just like you, I’m struggling. An avid reader in childhood, I can barely sit down and read half a page of a book nowadays without being bored. And I’m not about to pontificate about the glory and wonder of books as the best, most amazingest entertainment medium out there, because at its base level, they’re really quite simplistic and basic. Only a step ahead of the spoken word. It is passive entertainment that is technically just another form of mindless distraction, regardless of genre or literary merit, just like scrolling Facebook or watching YouTube video after YouTube video.

However, as a writer, I understand the power of the written word. The childhood adage Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me is a lie. Words are powerful. The written word is powerful. It can change lives, create dynasties or dictatorships, we can live or die by the written word. And when I’m engaged in a good story, I’m hooked. Last year, I read Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins and social media couldn’t keep me away: I read five hundred pages with feverish fervour for two and a half days. You’ve probably had a similar experience. It’s about recreating that magical feeling, about sticking to the one task being comfortable with singletasking, content to just be.

So how do we go about getting it back?


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