Monday, July 28, 2008

Book Review: “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson


Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
By Maggie Jackson (Prometheus, 2008)

(order at Amazon.com)


Focus

I was distracted by an irrelevant search result, followed a path of links I can't recall and ended up on Maggi Jackson's website where her new book “Distracted” is advertised:

“Distracted is a gripping exposé of this hyper-mobile, cyber-centric, attention-deficient life. Day by day, we are eroding our capacity for deep attention— the building block of intimacy, wisdom and cultural progress. The implications for a healthy society are stark.”

If you follow this blog you will hear the resonance with some of my writings, on Googlearchy, Communication, Information Overload and the danger of making irreversible mistakes.

So I ordered the book, how could I have resisted something about a coming dark age? (For my version, see here). When the book arrived a month ago I didn't even open the box, but put it on a huge pile of papers waiting to be read, where it sat until my flight back to Canada. Thinking of a friend left to Niagara Riesling, I added a bottle of German Chardonnay to my suitcase upon which it exceeded the allowed weight. I therefore decided to promote one more book into hand-baggage, and “Distracted” successfully distracted me from my seat-neighbor's cough during a transatlantic flight.

This already brings up the first question: What is distraction? As for me, I would have said I am often distracted - to my husband's chagrin - because I am focused, just not on what is coughing right next to me. However, what Jackson is actually writing about is not so much distraction as instead attention, and how essential paying attention is to our ability to shape our future. Using the words of philosopher William James, she defines
“Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”

Judgement

With this starting point Jackson sets out to argue vividly that

“The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention - the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.”

In her book, Maggie Jackson describes her pursuit of the topic that must have taken several years. She covers a wide range of aspects, and describes meetings with researchers in many fields from neuroscience over psychology to computer science, she talked to artists, and with people who shared their experiences. The research findings are very well referenced, understandably summarized, and woven into the narrative of her travels. The book reads very smoothly, much like a piece of science journalism, just extended to book's length.

Some of the topics Jackson covers were not quite what I expected, such eg the importance of the fork in western civilization or Edison's attempts to communicate with the dead. She actually addresses a much wider range than what the blurb lets one expect: Jackson also writes about the clash of surveillance with trust, the loss of permanence in mobility and fast food, and the eeriness of computers that pretend or react to human emotion. The parts I found most interesting though where those covering the influence of multitasking, lacking self-discipline, and an inability to maintain focus on the education of the next generation.

The book is divided into three parts:

PART I. LENGHTENING SHADOWS: EXPLORING OUR LANDSCAPE OF DISTRACTION
PART II. DEEPENING TWILIGHT: PURSUING THE NARROWING PATH
PART III. DARK TIMES... OR RENAISSANCE OF ATTENTION?

and the first and second part has a chapter each with the title “Focus”, “Judgement” and “Awareness”, which in the last part of the book she explains are the three levels of our attention system

“Do we yearn for such voracious virtual connectivity that others become optional and conversation fades into a lost art? For efficiency's sake, do we split focus so finely that we thrust ourselves in a culture of lost threads? [..] Smitten with the virtual, split-split, and nomadic, we are corroding the three pillars of our attention: focus (orienting), judgement (executive function), and awareness (alerting). The costs are steep: we begin to lose trust, depth, and collection in our relations and our thought. Without a flourishing array of attentional skills, our world flattens and thins. And most alarmingly, we begin to lose our ability to collectively face the challenges of our time. Can a society without deep focus preserve and learn from its past? Does a culture of distraction evolve to meet the needs of its future?”

However, the assignment of these titles to the chapters seems to me rather constructed, at least I fail to see why keeping memories of the deceased on Facebook falls under 'Focus', and global nomads fall under 'Awareness'. Either way, the line of thought in Jackson's book is well presented and easy to follow. She struggles hard to not come off as a Luddite and is semi-successful with it. In the final part, she comes damned close to advertising Buddhism and recommending we all meditate 30 min each day as a cure for attention deficit, but then she just finishes with saying we have to chose between “creating a culture of attention, recover the ability to pause, focus, connect, judge and enter deeply into a relationship or an idea, or we can slip into numb days of easy diffusion and detachment.”

Awareness

One thing weird about this book is that it put me in a position of constantly reflecting on my own attention, asking myself whether I'm following or getting distracted.

Something else that I could not avoid noticing is that Maggie Jackson's book is thoroughly American (notice bold face). Not only do most of the people she has talked to either live in New York, or are from New York, or are in some other way connected to New York, she doesn't even once attempt to ask what's going on outside the USA. I wonder for example have the Japanese and Chinese encountered similar problems in the education of the next generation?

Further, many of the points she argues to be connected to loss of attention are very USA-specific, such as the the omnipresence and fondness of fastfood, and the idea that freedom is the same as mobility. All of the research results she quotes seem to have been based on samples of US citizens. For me this lowers the significance of her arguments considerable. The part of me living in North America wants to constantly nod and say YES, YES, but the part born in Europe says “Who cares, so they finally get what they deserve.”

And honestly, that's what you have to ask yourself: if you have indoctrinated generations of your citizens that the pursuit of immediate individual advantage will lead your society towards happiness, guided by some “Invisible Hand” converting micro-interests into a desirable macro-behavior, how can you now expect them to realize they are making a huge and irreversible mistake?

Unfortunately, Jackson's book ends up being nothing more than a well-meant appeal that does not really offer any insights or solutions. I hope it will raise some awareness for the issues she is writing about, but I can't help but think she didn't address the main problem. These warnings are not new, but have been around at least for several decades, as she mentions in various places herself, and we are now beginning to notice the impact in an erosion of attention, and in an inability of our societies to maintain focus on long-term goals. How likely is this problem to be resolved by asking people to meditate and pay more attention to their friends?

Bottomline

If this was an amazon-review, I'd give four out of five stars. The book is a very recommendable read, well written and covers a lot of ground, but lacks some conclusions.

18 comments:

U*ncle Al said...

(A New Yorker's map of the world.)

High autists' attention is supremely well focused and sustained. They are medicated against it. Virulent consumerism demands a scatterbrain flitting about without plans for acquisition or ownership. Buy it because you must have it, then discard it because you do have it.

Carefully imposed public education is the wellspring of stooopidity. Deny a logical framework decrying ethnic fetish - charity not engineering. Deny the young standards of performance. Reduce existence to a decorous whine perched upon candles, polyester balloons, flowers, and little stuffed animals.

Survival is an ice pick not a cotton puff. Meditation is crap. Bloody a face. The lowest and highest classes are deeply skilled in that art each in its own way. Think your way out of it or be crushed at the interface.

sciencetourist said...

Here in the heart of the argument - NYC - I field the complaint that the internet is destroying everything from publishing and political discourse to the fabric of society itself. I tend to date the decline of reading and general techno ADD to the television and would argue that the web is a step back from a passive information drip for those who can handle it and as usual with changes in the world, some people can handle it, some people can't. The theory usually goes those that can handle it procreate more effectively and their offspring survive the punctuated equilibrium. Consumer culture and the automobile state have been decried as the 'end of America' since I was a kid and that's a while ago. I first heard the term 'drowning in the internet' in 1992.

The brain is a muscle, use it or lose it. You have problems paying attention? Read a long book. You're not required to have media on in the background when you work. Just because everyone is now a publisher doesn't mean you're required to 'blog' a certain amount. You don't have to stay in constant touch just because you have a cellular phone. The availability of too much information may be too much for some. I remember when the rise of the ATM led to massive drug binges. My generation (urban USA) was presented with vast amounts of substances and free time. Those that made it through walked away of their own free will, not because of governmental price supports. I quit television when I was 13 to the disbelief of my junior high history teacher. I told them I'd read the book, but I was sick of the tube.

Things are changing, adapt or die.
"you say you want an evolution ... well, you know ..."

Kaleberg said...

Actually there is something to be said for distraction. More and more research reveals that some problems are best solved when we are not focusing on the solution. The distraction gives the brain a chance to think.

Distraction is nothing new. Since many women have had children and raised them we know it is possible to have an intimate relationship with someone even in the face of continual distraction.

Basically, the book sounds like the usual "I can't keep up with things, that must be bad" medieval mindset. (Though, of course, the middle ages were full of distractions. You could always go down to the cathedral to do a bit of shopping).

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Nice review and yet so good that I don’t think I’ll run out to get this one. Not that I don’t agree that for some moments in the day we just have to shut it all down, yet I already knew that. However, the point I’d like to raise is even though I agree that attention span and with it the ability to focus for many is to some degree is getting shorter and that the media(s) and life style has some hand in this, I wonder if we are not overlooking the possibility that for many, regardless of the era or environment have never had what amounts to much to begin with.

Actually, I’m serious about this. What I mean is as one looks at peoples aptitudes/abilities and so forth, could not attention span or the ability to focus simply be for the most part just yet another of these measurable qualities? That is do we have a base line for this historically to compare with. I’m not talking about how many read books or paint compared to other eras. What I’m talking about is how many are what I would call route learners and how many are conceptual ones.

In my own experience, from the time I was a young boy I discovered that most people where the former and not the latter. That is most considered knowledge to be nothing more then what we might call an accessible data base. While as for myself I have never considered a fact on it’s own to have much relevance or value; it was rather if what I learned to know could be actually understood and proven such as it could be extended to new situations and problems. Also, just like almost every other aptitude it might show a bell curve and as such one that doesn’t alter much regardless of era or circumstance. So in a way we might be looking to accomplish something that would require genetic intervention to actually have it improve to any great degree in the short term.

Best,

Phil

Avid book reader said...

Buddhists would have to agree with her - their entire religion is based on the premise that we are losing our ability (or have lost) to pay attention to the moment. To really pay attention - deeply, wholly. Society is training our cognitive systems away from pure (or high) attention towards a middle fuzzy level where we are able to remember products - but not what they mean or why we need them. Consumerism is the dark age and it is here.

Bee said...

Sciencetourist: You're missing an essential point. Not every change is necessarily progress. One can also adapt to regress, which results in a decline in our cultural, scientific and technological achievements. Yes, things are changing, but in this case it is mankind itself who causes this change and we should think very carefully about whether it's a change we will profit from, or whether we are sowing the seeds of our own demise, cheered by people like you who think progress is eternal and happens automatically without the need to pay attention to it. Best,

B.

Arun said...

I counted the number of times I was distracted while reading your review, Bee, and it was scarily high.

Need to work on this.

Bee said...

Hi Kaleberg,

Yes, we had a post on mindwandering eg here, I also do think it is an essential ingredient of creativity.

That however isn't the problem Jackson is writing about. Creativity alone doesn't help you, once you have an idea you also need to carefully think about it, learn about all the related issues, test the ground, check the sources, get yourself familiar with what has been done, think critically, and so on and so forth. This requires being focused and paying attention. It is unsurprising that in the present environment there's been increasingly more emphasis on creativity and spontaneity on the expenses of paying attention to the details. Just look at the blogosphere (not necessarily only science) where you easily find a lot of people who believe they've just had a great idea and are oh-so-creative and expect to be discovered as the saviour of the world or the genius we've all been waiting for, but never look into the topic close enough to figure out how their allegedly ingenious idea relates to the state of the art. It's an incredible superficiality that we can witness spreading.

Basically, the book sounds like the usual "I can't keep up with things, that must be bad" medieval mindset.

I am sorry if you had that impression from my review because this is definitely not the case. Jackson isn't saying any technological developments are good or bad, but that we have to deal with them responsibly and have to ask ourselves if they have unwanted side effects that we need to take care of. I totally agree with her on that, I just don't think it's done with telling people there are unwanted side effects (indeed we can see that it doesn't work). Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

I find the book very useful in that it is a good collection of data that on exactly the questions you are raising. There is no data about attention span itself, but there is eg an increasing amount of data how constant interruptions hinder thought processes, and how training children to maintain attention significantly helps their learning process. Esp. the interruption problem is by now well examined because it has measurable disadvantages for worker's productivity, thus there is business interest behind such studies (I wrote about this eg here).

Another point that Jackson mentions is a declining ability of students for critical thinking and in depth analysis, as well as a stronger focus on career instead on understanding. I think I might do a post at some point collecting these references, I want to look some of them up before I do so, would that be of interest? Best,

B.

Plato said...

The Open Road-The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer

When speaking about his Buddhist practice, the Dalai Lama focuses on the work that is meditation rather than its perceived "mystical gifts." In speeches worldwide, he implores people not to convert to Buddhism, but instead to explore their own spiritual traditions to the fullest.

By insinuation alone, you can cast a light on, no different then, the perpetration of the "illusions of thought" relevant to science?

Mathematical ingenuity, and it's creation( on creativity)? Deeply entrusting into the matters, or, further abstractions into the illusions we perpetrate?

Spaces in between(time and memory), Zeno's measure and half measure? Attention and focus? The measure of one's heart beat. "A soul, with no home."

What shall we call these "wandering scientists":)and from them, the stories that elucidate the current condition. Monks?:)

No, "only people" that are more "fully aware" of the importance of the conditions that currently exist.

Best,

Plato said...

Soul Food Reviewed by Margaret Gunning



"The unhappiest people I know these days," writes transcendental travel writer Pico Iyer in The Global Soul, "are often the ones in motion, encouraged to search for a utopia outside themselves." This restless, rootless and often fruitless search for a sense of home in a fragmented and dizzyingly fast-paced world has led to a peculiar form of alienation which Iyer knows only too well. Though he tracks this phenomenon of the 21st century with great accuracy and even brilliance, he is unable to offer a solution for the aching malaise afflicting these global souls, whom he describes as "full-time citizens of nowhere."

sciencetourist said...

B: Not sure if you get my point.

'people like you who think progress is eternal and happens automatically'

There's an interesting digression in an argument with a physicist about whether progress happens automatically but I'm not qualified.

'without the need to pay attention to it.'

Specifically I'm arguing that there is a personal need to pay attention to it. (which from what I can tell is also part of the point of the book) You are responsible for what you take from the modern world. Any reading of Darwin and his successors would imply that everyone doesn't make the cut. Access to information overload is not going to be good for everyone. Fast food isn't good for anyone.

You seem to imply that there would be a possibility of rolling the encroaching techno sphere back, put the genie back in the bottle as it were, and return to a golden age before the internet and after the telephone(?) - certainly my friends in publishing, film and the music business would like nothing better. This could require a vast social movement and anything like that could be a good thing, unless it was luddites decreeing no more cellular telephones and bloggers. Or perhaps you could roll it back for yourself.

As to 'people like me' who cheer progress on, that's like cheering on the tide. It's coming whether I'm cheering or not. Not every change is progress (see: politics, culture, the environment) and everyone should consider their own involvement in the world carefully. Maybe it's because, while born in the midst of the United State's post war consumer binge, me and my people have never felt part of it. I travel amongst the fast food people all the time and sit around hotels reading history and the occasional blog, not watching reality TV.

Regarding 'sowB: Not sure if you get my point.

'people like you who think progress is eternal and happens automatically'

There's an interesting digression in an argument with a physicist about whether progress happens automatically but I'm not qualified.

'without the need to pay attention to it.'

Specifically I'm arguing that there is a personal need to pay attention to it. (which from what I can tell is also part of the point of the book) You are responsible for what you take from the modern world. Any reading of Darwin and his successors would imply that everyone doesn't make the cut. Access to information overload is not going to be good for everyone. Fast food isn't good for anyone. I can't source it but someone said part of Newton's genius was that he could think about the same problem for a really long time.

As to 'people like me' who cheer progress on, that's like cheering on the tide. It's coming whether I'm cheering or not. Not every change is progress (see: politics, culture, the environment) and everyone should consider their own involvement in the world carefully. Maybe it's because, while born in the midst of the United State's post war consumer binge, me and my people have never felt part of it. That said, I liked your analysis from the European side. There was a story about a kid from middle class India who was having trouble academically in middle school. Father gets a fancy job, they move to NYC and he's enrolled in a posh private. Where of course he is a superstar academically. Shine, perishing republic.
ing the seeds of our own demise' I may personally worry more about ecological issues and the over all health of the oceans than a culture of distraction but your mileage may vary. The argument could be made that they were entertwined in the past but here we are so make the best of it.

I can't source it but someone said Newton's genius was that he could think about the same problem for a really long time

sciencetourist said...

Apologies for above mangled post. I was trying to edit and have rendered it unreadable - my bad. I'll shut up now. Please delete if you desire.

Bee said...

Hi Sciencetourist,

I think I roughly get what you are saying, and I think I misunderstood your earlier comment, so apologies for the 'people like you' remark. I am not saying we should roll back time, neither do I wish that. I think the internet offers a lot of opportunities for change to the better, and we would be silly not to use them since we desperately need them to cope with problems emerging on a global scale.

I also agree that we "are responsible for what we take from the modern world," every one of us. And every one of us *should* be responsible enough to realize if a change is not positive but has disadvantage that diminish our long-term happiness.

But knowledge of long-term costs is not always enough to make people realize they are doing the wrong thing. Fast food and obesity is a good example, but it's one in which the drawbacks are mostly on the individual level. With the dangers for the education and learning capabilities of the coming generation we have a problem where drawbacks are on the political level, and they are pretty obviously so. The quality of newspaper reports sinks constantly; the coverage tends more and more towards entertainment and local news; people focus increasingly on short-term goals. That's not a way in which one can possibly achieve sustainable policies.

And that's exactly why I am worried about these trends. You write:

I may personally worry more about ecological issues and the over all health of the oceans than a culture of distraction but your mileage may vary

I personally worry about these issues as well, but I am afraid the reason why we do not manage to get a grip on these problems is exactly this culture of decreasing attention, one that lives in the present and is not able to plan ahead and actively shape its future.

As to 'people like me' who cheer progress on, that's like cheering on the tide. It's coming whether I'm cheering or not.

That is not necessarily the case. Change is inevitable, one can cheer it or bemoan it, that doesn't matter. But how we deal with it is our decision, and how we deal with it will decide whether we use change to our advantage and for progress, or whether we allow it to be to our disadvantage and to lead to regress. The question we have to ask is: if a change leads to regress, to decreasing long-term happiness of a majority of people, will we be able to do something about it?

Any reading of Darwin and his successors would imply that everyone doesn't make the cut.

Question is whether even those who make it are happy with what they've achieved. Point is, there's limits to how fast humans can adapt to change. Evolution works slowly. If we initiate a change that is faster than we ourselves can adapt to it, we have naturally selected ourselves out. That won't lead to an extinction of the human race - since it's us ourselves who maintain the complexity of our environment it will lead to a collapse down to a state where we fit in better. We should be very careful not to rush things, such that we have sufficient time to adapt to change and if it doesn't go where we want it to, to correct the direction.

Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“I think I might do a post at some point collecting these references, I want to look some of them up before I do so, would that be of interest?”

As with almost all of what you write I would find it of interest. This one for sure, as it would have what’s being presented and after discussed grounded more objectively and perhaps take out some of the I feel this and I think that out of the mix. It would also be nice to learn if they have been able to actually discern what the pathogens are for what relates more closely to an illness then anything else.

I must say however, that there still exists some element that suggests all was right before and only recently we have a problem. I still say there must be some thought given to how innate factors play out in all this.

With that said I’d be the first to say however that our children should not be immediately given Ritalin which often in my opinion is an excuse for bad parenting and mitigated itself by bad judgment like the following related statement seems to indicate:

“The report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found ADHD diagnoses among children aged 12 to 17 increased by an average of 4 percent a year from 1997 to 2006. The researchers found no significant change in the percentage of children aged 6 to 11 diagnosed with ADHD over the same period.”

-Attention disorder rising amoung older children-Thurs. July 24 - Reuters

It seems strange to me that a disease would be so age specific and in such a narrow range. I wonder if there are similar statistics for both young and older adults?

Best,

Phil

Tony Smith said...

Bee said "... look at the blogosphere ... where you easily find a lot of people who believe they've just had a great idea ... but never look into the topic close enough to figure out how their allegedly ingenious idea relates to the state of the art ...".

However, sometimes the person who had the idea is willing to "look into the topic close enough",
but
establishment critics (including anonymous attack dogs) rush to dismiss the idea without looking close enough.

For example,
consider Garrett Lisi's E8 model and
the n-Category Cafe thread of Urs Schreiber "E8 Quillen Superconnection",
particularly the last (as of a few minutes ago) entries on 23 July 2008. Here are some excerpted quotes:

Garrett Lisi said "... There is a ... grading of ... e8 such that ... a generation of fermions ... sits in the odd part ..."
and that he is "... interested in considering what related constructions might give us a physical model ...".

Jacques Distler said "... the assertion that the (8s,8s) of D4×D4 contains a generation (as opposed to half a generation and half an anti-generation) ...[is]... wrong ...".

I then suggested
using notation D8adj for the 120-dim rep of D8 containing D4xD4
and D8s+ for the related (8s, 8s) in the +half-spinor of D8
that
Jacques Distler's objection is based on the physical interpretations:

D8adj = bosonic (28+28+64)=120-dim

D8s+ = fermionic (64+64)=128-dim particle generation plus particle antigeneration

D8s-= fermionic (64+64)=128-dim antiparticle generation plus antiparticle antigeneration

However,
if you use an alternative physical interpretation:

D8adj = bosonic (28+28+64)=120-dim

D8s+ = fermionic (64+64)=128-dim particle and antiparticle generation

D8s-= fermionic (64+64)=128-dim particle and antiparticle antigeneration

then
when you use E8 so constructed from D8
you get
248-dim E8 = 120-dim D8adj + 128-dim D8s+
so that
E8 can be used to make a model with one generation
and
(since there is no D8s- in E8,
because
D8adj + Ds+ + Ds- does not form a Lie algebra)
there is no antigeneration in such E8 models.

Instead of leading to serious discussion about such a realistic construction (getting into issues such as the Atiyah-Singer index, spin structure, etc),
there has been no subsequent discussion by Jacques Distler or any other (including some anonymous) people critical of Garrett Lisi there.

In short, it seems to me in that case that Garrett Lisi is willing to discuss his E8 model, and to accept and incorporate accurate criticisms,
but
his critics are only willing to attack the basic E8 idea, and not to enter into a constructive discussion that might lead to a realistic E8 model.

Tony Smith

bellamy said...

In any circumstance, there is a multitude of events. Two things determine one's 'predilections' on what is 'noticed': experiential/social conditioning; and, articulating Phil's idea, genetic predispositions - which largely dicatate what conditioning one will be amenable to.

Stello said...

Great review. This topic was recently analyzed by the Columbia Journalism Review as it pertains to distractions negatively impacting effective, comprehensive public affairs reporting. Newspapers fight against this tide of distractions by creating more distractions and whittling stories down in an effort to "chase eyeballs."
Thanks for the concise, clear writing.