A Review of Distracted:
The Erosion of Attention
and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson.
By Chris Smith.
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention
and the Coming Dark Age. Maggie Jackson. Hardcover. Prometheus Books. 2008. Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $20] [ Amazon ]
The driving force behind Maggie Jackson’s new book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age is her belief – spelled out most clearly in the book’s final paragraphs – that humankind is at a crucial point in our history. On one hand we have cultivated practices that have rendered it difficult for us to focus our attention on any particular thing. One the other hand, research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience has provided us with a deep understanding of attention and how it is cultivated. Thus, Jackson raises the crucial question: “We now hold the potential to know, shape and utilize a full quiver of attention skills to combat a spreading culture of distraction… [will we] create a culture of attention, recover the basic ability to pause, focus, connect, judge and enter deeply into a relationship or an idea or [will we] slip into numb days of easy diffusion and distraction [?]” (266)
Before going any further, I must insert the confession that I, ironically, was not able to give this book the attention that I had hoped I could. My reading of this book, like most books I read these days, comes in a multitude of chunks (5 pages here, 30 pages there). Even after a second pass through the book, Jackson’s structure/organization seems a bit confusing, but after my first reading, I found clues about the structure of her arguments embedded deep within the pages of each chapter. I don’t know if this writing style was intentional or not, but for me at least, I had to pay close attention in order to follow Jackson through the course of her arguments.
The bulk of Jackson’s work presented in Distracted is a careful exposition of the ways in which humanity has developed a culture of distraction. Before launching into this exposition, however, she notes in the first chapter that this distracted culture was foreseen by critics of technology as early as the Victorian era. Some of the references that she cites in this chapter are quite eerie in the level of details with which they predict both the development of technology and the ensuing human detachment and distraction.
In the book’s first part, Jackson poignantly describes the “landscape of distraction.” First, we are increasingly choosing the virtual over the real, which is gradually distorting our sense of space. Secondly, we find ourselves doing greater and greater amounts of multi-tasking. The effect of this multi-tasking is fragmentation as we pay the costs of switching from one task to another. Thus, our sense of time is being altered by the simultaneity of our multi-tasking. A third dimension of this landscape of distraction is that, by our constant mobility, we are becoming untethered, and are losing our sense of place.
Then, in the second part of the book, Jackson examines the substitutes (my term, not hers) that we have created in response to the losses described in the previous part. Our increasing preference of the virtual over the real causes us to lose focus, and we turn to surveillance technologies to compensate. In addition, we tend to rely on computers and non-verbal forms of information, rather than traditional forms of information (e.g., books).However, the challenge that such non-verbal information poses is that it typically comes in massive doses and, since it is less structured, we experience great difficulty trying to find the information that we need. Finally, we compensate for our lack of rootedness in a place by creating post-human machines that offer the sort of connection that we find ourselves lacking. Our creation of robotics and prosthetics that, take the place of real human connection, is in the words of technological critic, Steve Talbott – “ultimately a gesture of hope, confusion and pain.” (209)
The strength of Jackson’s work in Distracted is its exposition and critique of the distracted society that we have created. Unfortunately, Jackson doesn’t offer a lot of specific guidance on how we can regain our skills of attention. However, she does offer the challenge of creating “a culture of attention.” It seems to me that the Church is the sort of community in which a sense of attention can be restored. The disciplines of our faith cultivate in us an attention that is grounded in love. One of the most striking stories in Jackson’s book is that of recent psychological research that shows that patience and self-control in young children are crucial factors in the life-time development of attention and critical thinking. Indeed, these factors are even more important than intelligence (IQ).Perhaps it is time for the Church to lead the way in creating a culture of attention.Maggie Jackson’s book Distracted will serve as a wonderful guide for us on this journey as we begin to recognize and confess the ways in which we daily are inattentive and distracted.