Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

[30 July 2008]

By Rachel Smucker

As I am sipping coffee, checking my e-mail, and absentmindedly picking a hangnail, I realize full well the irony of writing this review on Maggie Jackson’s new book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and The Coming Dark Age. In fact, I found myself repeatedly put to shame as Jackson outlined nearly every conceivable form of modern distraction, ranging in severity from rather harmless Web-surfing (“mobile foraging”) to life-consuming virtual love, making my multitasking and bored Internet meanderings seem more sinful than eating a fried Oreo. Is my inability to focus on one task at a time contributing to the Western world’s gradual descent into a medieval stupor?

Jackson’s answer has the frustrating smack of learned caution: it depends. Conflicted between a desire to focus and a need for efficiency, the technological world is on the brink of literally losing its mind—or minds, as the people in it are slowly taking part in what Jackson calls “a dehumanizing merging between man and machine”.

Sound scary and Terminator-esque? Not when you think about our everyday experiences with technology, Jackson argues. Her chapters probe deeply into the mind-blowing pros and Big Brother-like cons of seemingly mundane products such as surveillance systems, e-mail and robotics, presenting their implications for our culture in a whole new light. Not until the creepy-but-harmless Furby gives way to the Huggable, a robotic bear that can return hugs, make eye contact, and potentially “enabl[e] a soldier, business traveler, or faraway grandparent to be with a child virtually” does technology seem a little too advanced for its own good. Or is it?

Jackson tells a very fair story of the battle between the undeniable benefits of technology and their detrimental counterparts. Exploring areas such as enhanced leg prostheses and brain anatomy with some of the world’s top experts in those fields, she does not deny how useful our modern day tools have become. As a working mother, freelancer, and regular columnist for The Boston Globe, Jackson is certainly aware of the perks of working in a techo-bound society. Yet almost hand-in-hand with her admiration of technology is Jackson’s keen awareness of its ability to foster ignorance and irresponsibility.

“We can’t blame the BlackBerry,” she said in an interview with Business Week, voicing a simple truth that is easy to forget in a world of (presumably) flawless machines. A burned pizza, a missed meeting, a late wake-up—we would all love to point fingers at our self-regulatory bits of technology, existing as we are in an age where “we outsource memory almost entirely to our gadgets.” But the bitter truth is out there, folks; we’re the ones who are ultimately in charge.

Quite appropriately, one must be prepared to settle down with a pencil and a focused mind in order to properly read this book. With its 50 pages of endnotes and exhaustive bibliography, Distracted is a dense, challenging read. It is not so much her style of writing, but rather her endless references and quotes from various “experts” that are sometimes, well … distracting. Citing study after study, Jackson tends to get lost on her own trains of thought—never derailing, per se, but elaborating for a little too long (e.g., five pages on eyeball anatomy).

Nevertheless, I found myself wishing for more of Jackson’s fluid, witty prose, punctuated as it was with snippets of wisdom from her elders and betters. She seemed like enough of an expert on the subject to me—after hiking in Oregon with reknowned cognitive neuroscientist Michael Posner, visiting a Buddhist sanctuary in the mountains of Colorado, and meeting with the head of consumer insight for Dunkin’ Donuts to discuss “commuter-friendly” pizza, Jackson’s experience-based approach to researching attention gave Distracted some well-earned credentials, both academic and hands-on.

Jackson often describes these personal excursions in great detail, making Distracted seem more like a series of journal entries than a formal assertion. Culminating in an eerie brain-scanning scene sprinkled with Jackson’s thoughtful musings, Distracted leaves us with what could have been the final entry in a neuroscientist’s scrapbook: “What did I learn from this test, this voyage, this quest to understand the mysteries of attention? … Will we cultivate a renaissance of attention?”

While Jackson doesn’t take the “Dark Ages v.s. Renaissance” argument as far as I would have liked, her skeleton outline of the inverse relationship between technology and attention is reinforced with each chapter. Plunging deeper into our tools and machines, we drift farther and farther away from one another—“one-quarter of Americans say they have no close confidante, more than double the number twenty years ago,” she writes in the introduction—and hence, farther away from the potential to develop a culture of people, of interpersonal connections and philosophical reasoning. Technological advancement, Jackson argues, is simply not enough.

But did we ever think it was? Not until we are shaken out of the comfort zones of our Bluetoothed selves are we able to fully realize where we are, what we have done, and what it has done to us. Glued to our computer chairs and helpless, Distraction is the first of (hopefully) many wake-up calls this world needs to unglue, unplug, and relax. It is by no accident that Jackson chose to use good ol’ ink and paper to bring her voice of reason to the people—what better way to encourage long periods of concentration?

In typical scientist-cum-philosopher style, Jackson manages to ask all the right questions (read: open-ended), and ultimately leaves it up to us to decide our own fate. And in case we still aren’t paying attention, she slaps us upside the virtual head with a frightening suggestion: “We just might be too busy, wired, split-focused, and distracted to notice a return to an era of shadows and fear.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/distracted-the-erosion-of-attention-and-the-coming-dark-age/