Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
By Maggie Jackson (Prometheus, 2008)
(order at Amazon.com)
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.”
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.”
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?
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.