In her column in The New York Times last weekend, Maureen Dowd worried about what will happen if war distracts us Ukraine. “Do we have the attention span to focus on that? Russian descent into pure evil?” she asked. “We now live in a world full of distractions, with a blizzard of stimuli.” But what if the war in Ukraine is the distraction?
In February, provoked by a new book, I was working on a column about how big tech and social media are destroying our ability to focus. Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Be Careful by the British-Swiss journalist Johann Hari. And then Putin invaded Ukraine. I gave up that column, started a Twitter list about the war, and have now written seven columns in a row about it.
Also in February, Irish painter Conrad Frankel finished work on a series of still lifes for an exhibition in Dublin. And then Putin invaded Ukraine. Frankel abandoned the project, immersed himself in the imagery of the conflict and painted an entirely new exhibition, war paint.
“Art is probably the best way to provide information to society and to inspire people to resist Russia in any way they can,” said Ukrainian Ambassador to Ireland Gerasko Larysa last Sunday at the opening of the exhibition in the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Dublin. Frankel described how he grappled with the “toxic wealth” in the media. “I want to do something deeper with the news that I can’t stop watching,” he wrote in an accompanying note.
Frankel and I share a special privilege: our professional lives allow us to delve into the question of the moment. By doing so, we hope to shape this moment a little; By mirroring the world back to itself, we hope to influence it for the better. We strive to “do something deeper” with the messages we can’t stop.
At least that is the idealistic view of the professions of journalism and art. A more prosaic way is to acknowledge that journalists and artists, like everyone else, are distracted (and voyeuristically attracted) by the “toxic richness” of the crises erupting on our screens, but can honor that instinct by calling it integral to our vocation .
Most people don’t have that luxury. For the past two months, in shops and offices, on construction sites and factory floors, at meetings and family dinners, people’s attention has been stolen by the sickeningly gripping news from Ukraine. This news is, of course, hugely important: it might at least be the most significant news event of the past decade; it has both moral significance and the potential for significant impact on the world around us.
But perhaps more than any other geopolitical news event, this one is being consumed on social media. It changes the media, it changes war itself, and it changes us.
Some of these changes are positive: the public has better access to eyewitness testimony and experts, putting more pressure on their governments to act; The leadership of Ukraine has greater opportunities to attract international support. But this phenomenon also means that for millions of people who have no real interest in war, it intrudes and distracts from the most important and intimate aspects of their daily lives. Of course, that doesn’t only happen in war: That’s how we live now. In that sense, war is just another distraction – one with more at stake. The next stimulus on our screens might be less traumatizing, but not necessarily less distracting. And the cumulative effect of it burns our brains.
In Stolen Focus, Hari documents exactly how our attentional capacity is shrinking and how social media is to blame (in large part). For one study, tracking software was installed on the computers of a group of American college students: it found that the students typically switched tasks every 65 seconds; The average time they focused on a task was just 19 seconds. Another study found that office workers spend an average of just three minutes on a task. Another study found that most office workers could never work an uninterrupted hour on a typical day. That distraction—and distractibility—takes its toll.
Hari cites research that found that it typically takes a person 23 minutes to return to the same state of attention when they’re concentrating on something and are interrupted. It tells the story of Tristan Harris, a Google Engineer who tried to sound the alarm within Google because their innovations were damaging the collective ability to focus. “We shape more than 11 billion disruptions in people’s lives every day,” Harris told his colleagues in a presentation before leaving Google. They would have helped “create an arms race leading to companies finding more reasons to steal people’s time”.
The result, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller, told Hari that we created “a perfect storm of cognitive deterioration as a result of distraction.”
But the toll is not only taken on productivity or intellectual capacity – this deterioration also affects the fabric of our emotional life and the fabric of democracy itself.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been grappling with these questions for a decade and summarized his work in an essay last week The Atlanticentitled Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Be Uniquely Stupid.
As Haidt documents, the rise of social media since the early 2010s has been correlated with “an increase in rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm” among teenagers. Social media algorithms encourage “dishonesty and mob dynamics” and are “perfectly designed to bring out our most moral and least thoughtful selves,” he judges.
Research on Twitter, cited by Hari, found that for every word of moral outrage added to a tweet, the retweet rate increased by an average of 20 percent; The words that increased retweet rate the most were “attack,” “bad,” and “blame.”
A Pew Research Center study found that stuffing Facebook posts with “outraged disagreements” doubled likes and shares. This has political implications as it serves to increase polarization and reduce social trust.
Although digital media also clearly have positive policy implications, a review of studies on the subject by social scientists Philipp Lorenz-Spreen and Lisa Oswald found that “the vast majority of reported associations between digital media use and trust appear anti-democratic”.
This problem is paradoxical. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a distant country, between people we know nothing about”. Thanks in large part to social media, Western powers are now unable to turn their backs on Ukraine as they did on Czechoslovakia. But the way war is being woven into our lives through social media is an extreme case of a long-standing problem. Sometimes, as Frankel said, we need to do something deeper with the news we can’t stop looking at; but sometimes we have to stop watching the news.
As with any problem, the first step is to recognize it. In the coming weeks I will examine a number of possible solutions – if I can concentrate.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/focus-on-war-is-waning-amid-maelstrom-of-social-media-41560045.html The focus on the war is fading in the whirlwind of social media