Stolen Focus & Johann Hari

Hi first-time posting but long-time listener. I think people on this forum would get a lot out of a book I just listened to on Audible. Its called Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. He would also be a great guest, I heard him on the Rich Roll podcast & he’s a very engaging speaker.
As well as providing tips & tricks to reclaim one’s own focus, there is a gold-mine of material for parents on ensuring your kids’ focus is not hijacked by the attention stealers i.e. the anti-social media at large & the surveillance capitalists.
I’ve read a lot of so-called “this will change your life” books, but this one is a complete eye-opener, a good story and full of practical actionable insights.

4 Likes

I’ve been reading this book. It’s a bit shrill about the dangers of tech – he does have to sell the book, after all, so he uses the techniques he deplores in order to flog his story – but some of his points are interesting, if not fully practical.

Worth noting that the author, Johann Hari, has a reputation for serial & serious plagiarism and fabrication. This led to him losing his job at a major UK newspaper and being stripped of the prestigious Orwell Prize.

He also admitted to using sock puppet accounts on Wikipedia to make false and defamatory claims about writers with whom he disagreed.

His book (Stolen Focus) has come in for plenty of criticism for misrepresenting the results of the studies he quotes, and failing to cite primary sources.

Wikipedia link below, but plenty of other articles online about his actions over many years.

7 Likes

Sounds interesting. With these sorts of books, I often look on YouTube for a talk/presentation that the author did before the book was published. The books themselves generally have a lot of what is (generously) known as “padding”.

In this case, however, the aforementioned podcast is almost 2.5 hours, so that might be the summary that will suffice for many people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HloHNf8KZG4

The video podcast also has a nice index of topics and timestamps.

The audiobook of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is 10+ hours.

1 Like

Hari is a charlatan. In addition to his well-earned reputation as a plagiarist, he’s a narcissist who attempts to silence criticism (reports critics on social media to try to get them banned, fakes Wikipedia entries) and his book is the latest in a long line of poorly supported claims that using is changing our brains and causing irreparable damage to us and our children )cf Susan Greenfield, for example).

When challenged on the lack of properly researched evidence for their claims, these guys always resort to ad hominem attacks, claims that critics are shills for big tech and any other method that avoids legitimate debate (in Hari;s case.

It may be that some of the claims in this book are true - but you can’t rely on the likes of Hari as evidence. And I would discourage anyone from supporting his work by handing over money for any of his books.

3 Likes

Do you know if there’s anybody that’s generally considered credible in that particular area of research?

I enjoyed Cal Newport’s work - in particular Digital Minimalism and Deep Work. (Ironically, I have more time to read Digital Minimalism after deleting my Facebook account.) The Notes section contains further references.

2 Likes

Wow, I typed “Hari p” into the Safari search bar and it offered “hari plagiarism” as the first suggestion. Sure enough, allegations going back 10+ years. Amazed he still has a career.

Thanks for the tip.

p.s. - also @shandy I realize now that I somehow I missed your post with the same warning, but wanted to thank you for sharing it too.

1 Like

Hmmm … reading this thread, I returned my Stolen Focus Kindle copy and got a refund from Amazon.

1 Like

Although plagiarism doesn’t hold a candle to fabrication.

Somebody plagiarizing a credible source is giving you credible information that isn’t properly attributed. Somebody fabricating information out of whole cloth is much more concerning. :slight_smile:

2 Likes

Blurry distinction, IMO.

  1. Plagiarists use unattributed information to support fabrications around history, context and interpretation of the info
  2. The fact of its being unattributed makes it hard to impossible to verify.
2 Likes

Plagiarists lie and break trust with the reader. Whether the stolen material is “credible” (i.e., “real”) is irrelevant.

1 Like

I think it’s relevant if you’ve already been exposed to it and/or read it.

If it’s fabricated, you have to double back and re-work your thinking on the subject. If it was just stolen from another credible source, the information is still true - but you wouldn’t want to support an author that did that in the future.

I read the back half of Stolen Focus at a bookstore a few weeks ago. Broadly agreed with its contents. My favorite chapter was Hari’s recounting of his personal attempts to reclaim his concentration and calmness.

One of his interview subjects wrote a good book about flourishing when being targeted by the so-called attention economy and used a three light analogy for the types of focuses we need for immediate work, long-term planning and values, and our overall physical/mental/emotional capacities.

It’s categorized as political theory but should be of general interest.

1 Like

Or maybe it shows the dangers of research by Google and how some topic or point can rise to #1 with a bullet regardless of merit!? I don’t know really, he made some mistakes I have no doubt. This is an example of exactly what we are talking about in some sense?
I use Google less and less frankly and find it less and less useful, recently, for a technical issue, I had to dig through about ten pages of results to get anything remotely useful. It took up my time and frankly my attention was wandering by the end.

I work in a field, or did, with very high minded plagiarism standards, enough to instigate inquiries and ‘audits’ galore: fair enough and nothing I can argue with in principle. In 30 years I came across one really original and new perspective within the tighter definition of my area of study though. The bulk of work is technical sounding with lots of ‘more research is needed’ and clever takes and twists but pretty empty and relies on assumptions and core notions outdated decades ago. That doesn’t discount lazy and venal copy and pasting and so on of course, but as time passes I feel less and less agitated or concerned about it.

Like so many things the lines are a lot more gray than I used to think. I actually got involved, to my shame, on the wrong side, and joined the criticism and cries of ‘plagiarism’ in a notable case, I regret it to this day.
I didn’t follow the Hari story closely, though I used to read his column. I found the whole critique of him marginal inflated, pompous and a bit ‘meh’. The journalists involved, well, cast out the beam… A lot of them are prety much conduits for received opinions now.

The distinction is a lot more blurry as you rightly say than many of us seem to be able to cope with. I did join in at one time, on such a case of ‘plagiarism’, in decrying the supposed plagiarism. I now regret it but was never able to make good on it, not yet anyway.
By and large, regarding neurology and linguistics, “brain science” if you will, journalists are, all round, such a sorry bunch that it is hard to pick a single one out or find the exact mistakes as it were. Press releases by reputable institutions are partly to blame as are pollyannaish feel-good stories about disability and much else. Johan Hari is quite low on the list of guilty in my view and, for reasons independent of him, I think he is pretty much on point on this topic and has digested the research quite well if in an idiosyncratic way.

hi I started this thread and have been reading & digesting the replies & comments. I feel a bit foolish having dived in with my recommendation without checking Hari out. When I read about Hari trolling a forum under a pseudonym I even was deluded enough to worry that people might think that he’s at it again… I’m not him - but in my naïveté I just enjoyed his book & thought it might be relevant here …

It was a “schoolboy error” to rely on the fact that there was no hint whatsoever of the back-story on the Rich Roll podcast where I first encountered Johan Hari. I’ll be a bit more wary about Rich Roll’s treatment of his guests in future.

I think however I would still have been inspired to post something, probably along the lines that “whilst Hari is an admitted plagiarist and can’t be relied on for an accurate representation of his research & sources, his book does address a number of issues about focus, concentration & the impact of the tech in our pocket that would be good material for an episode of this podcast”.

Despite the deserved criticism of Hari, the overall message of the book is a positive one worth hearing and is indeed aligned with the message of the Focused podcast ie we can be self-determining in how we deal with the attention stealers, and it is not a given that the surveillance capitalism model (on which the attention/distraction economy is based) should or will survive.

Inevitably that’s old hat to some and a revelation to others, but either way, its still timely & topical. Thanks for contributing to my own education!

2 Likes

One wonders how much this very thread is an example of ‘stolen focus’ and scatterbrain google-search remarks constructing a ‘cyber narrative’, with high moral umbrage and ‘heat’.
It is a ‘schoolboy error’ maybe to stop at a certain point in the back story to put it another way? I will also say I dislike Hari intensely and have very serious disagreements with him regarding what I consider sloppy and unfair commentary: on matters though where Hari is quite in line with the majority of commentators in America and Britain and really toes the line and where few disagree with him, including most of the public.

My own engagement with this charge against him though led me to believe that the ‘plagiarism’ misbehavior of Hari has been very overstated and not for good reasons either. I will say that Wikipedia continues in its rapid descent and usefulness in my opinion after reading the current page on Hari and some of the references there, which, from direct experience I can tell you include articles which are un-factchecked and, if you were a native Brit, laughably out of touch with reality. Like I say I haven’t conducted a forensic study of this, then neither have most commentators including the writer of the recent Wiki article.

You might want to read my other replies here. I do have a history, good and bad with the “Gruniad” too, as we called it when it was the last standing Labor paper in the UK in print, though nothing directly, I am thankful to say, with Nick Cohen of the Independent and Spectator, who ironically, had to retract some of his own slanders recently in an article about Hari.

The charges came from journalists and so on who frankly are pretty much mouth pieces for their own bad and self-serving, dishonest and un-factchecked sources very often and in the case of Nick Cohen, I would be very wary of his motives and ‘spin’. I have a long and dreary involvement with the “Street of Shame” as Fleet Street in the UK was called and it’s relationship to commentators like Hari.

Hari’s infantile editing under false names was, well, just that and indefensible for someone who purports to carry intellectual weight, de officiis and in general the burdens of vocation and all that… Otherwise much worse happens at sea and frankly on Fleet Street. Given my own experiences with the cohort he was attacking or thought himself defending himself from, I can understand the level of frustration he suffered, still no excuse of course. Had he not done that I would ‘acquit’ to be honest and continue my dispute with him about things that really matter. Journalists, like anybody else conflate, mis-remember and get all kinds of things wrong without deliberate intent to deceive. Hari does seem to be on a low point on that spectrum though; though many of his mis-rememberings, I have to say, are repeated by a host of other journalists and pass without comment both here and in the UK.

However continuing this discussion, despite the fact that several commentators seem quite confident that the ‘back story’ they recount leaves all as it appears to be, seems to me inappropriate on this forum. I enjoyed you introducing the topic and your remarks.

1 Like