T14.5 .J32 2009
Distracted : the erosion of attention and the coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. Prometheus Books, c2009. 327 p.
Reviewed by Ann Finn
So, you’re watching TV while you’re texting, when you notice you’ve got mail—email, that is. Right then your roommate begins the daily harangue… Feeling a little distracted? Having trouble coping? Wonder what all this back & forth is doing to your brain?
Do you revel in the extremes: latest gadgets, newest video & audio, multi-tasking to the furthest extent allowed by law? Do you pride yourself on how much you can absorb & manage simultaneously?
Either way, your future is already here, and the impact of current technologies on humanity is a hot topic. Among the philosophers parsing the research statistics and offering warnings is Maggie Jackson, with her dystopian tome, Distracted.
Jackson anticipates a society in which deep thinking is utterly replaced by a kind of surface skimming for information—when no one has the time, interest, or ability to direct his/her attention to thorough mastery of any philosophy or discipline. Humanity’s past would be seen as irrelevant, and it would be as unknown as it was during the Dark Age. In fact, Ms. Jackson’s book posits the coming of a new dark age: a time of forgetting.
According to Ms. Jackson, knowledge workers lose 2.1 hours every day due to distractions—many of them self-caused. Almost everyone multi-tasks—and almost all of those workers think they handle it well & are good at it. However, science has recently proven that only one thing can be done well at a time. The human brain (like the computer) works serially—doing one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is not only the enemy of deep, concentrated thought, it actually derails the accumulation of long-term memory stores. And, of course, memory is an important factor in creating human individuality.
We’re losing our collective memory, too. We’re always on the go & never at rest. Our pause button doesn’t work. There’s no time for reflection on the past or considered planning for our collective future. Global thinking & access to a whole world of information has minimized the local in importance. We’re so distracted by the world-wide text & information glut pouring over us, that we don’t notice the humanity that’s nearby. And, we are becoming seriously detached from that very humanity: Many people move so often, due to global travel for work, that they don’t even try to meet new neighbors. They feel rootless & think of this as the new norm.
One of Jackson’s main themes is the rise of the virtual as a substitute for the real. Now, cremation urns commonly represent the recently deceased. Millions of people have “friends” they have never met and likely never will meet. Avatars substitute for portraits on Facebook. And, lots of man/woman hours are spent playing games about virtual worlds.
The over-reliance on machines is also worrisome to Ms. Jackson. Conversations have devolved to texting & Twitter—even with participants sitting in proximity. Similarly, a burgeoning field is the development of robots to care for and comfort the sick and dying. More disconcerting still is that the use of intra-body machinery and implants has blurred the boundary between humans and their tools. Already, some children see no need for visits to the zoo, preferring instead their plush, electronically-animated animal friends.
So, does Ms. Jackson see any hope for the future in an age overwhelmed by momentary utility, fads, superficiality, information skimming, constant distraction, & a general lack of interest in the depths of humanity found in our fellows? Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly?) yes! In the last chapter, she details the latest advances in the study of attention. Attention science is a young science, but, it is already obvious that it is possible for a person to train his/her brain/mind to increase extraordinarily the amount of focus needed for tasks. This training can allow the participant, like an athlete, to lose him/herself “in the zone”.
Do I think a dark age is coming? Most likely. Do I think Ms. Jackson proves her thesis? Not especially. But, read Distracted and, then, you can decide for yourself.