The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
Prometheus Books: 328 pp. $25.95
WE LIVE in an age of distraction. Teenagers tap text messages during dinner; students idly surf the Web instead of taking notes in class; office workers add to their Amazon wish lists. It's not just that we seek respite from the humdrum obligations of modern life; we distract ourselves from our distractions as well. Now we tote our beeping BlackBerries to the beach instead of the giant books we used to pretend to read.
For Maggie Jackson, a columnist for the Boston Globe, these electronic distractions are more than mere annoyances; they portend a new dark age. "Amid the glittering promise of our new technologies . . . we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation, sensory detachment," she laments in "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." "The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention. . . . As we cultivate lives of distraction, we are losing our ability to create and preserve wisdom and slipping toward a time of ignorance that is paradoxically born amid an abundance of information and connectivity."
Why should we care this much about attention? In short, because attention allows us to master reality rather than be mastered by it. When we pay attention, we willfully block out what William James called the "blooming, buzzing . . . confusion" of our perceptual universe to focus laser-like on one particular train of thought. Attention "implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others," James wrote, and is the opposite of the "confused, dazed, scatterbrained state . . . called distraction."
As Jackson's book makes abundantly clear, recent research confirms how scatterbrained we can get. "Interruption scientist" Gloria Mark found that workers typically devote only 11 minutes to any given project before switching at least temporarily to another, and even then flit back and forth between different tasks (answering e-mails, researching online) every few minutes. Though interruptions are endemic in the postmodern workplace, nearly half are instigated by the workers themselves.
None of this would be a problem if we really were as good at multitasking as we think we are. Unfortunately, our caveman brains weren't built for the age of e-mail; once we're distracted, it takes time to get back on track. One research firm estimates that the typical knowledge worker spends more than two hours a day dealing with interruptions; the aggregate cost to our economy may top half a trillion dollars a year.
"Distracted" is at its best when Jackson offers up engaging portraits of professional attention-seekers like University of Michigan psychologist David Meyer and Microsoft researcher Mary Czerwinski. While the curmudgeonly Meyer has set aside his own research to take up a crusade against the dangers of multitasking, which he sees as an "unrecognized scourge . . . akin to cigarette smoking a generation ago," Czerwinski works on innovative graphical interface software designed to keep office workers focused on the most important tasks at hand.
Alas, though Jackson's reports on the science of attention are fascinating, she doesn't delve deeply enough into the topic to justify a book-length disquisition, much less the grand social critique she intends. As an example, she devotes only a scant few pages to attention deficit disorder as a medical condition rather than a cultural metaphor. Inside this book is a magazine article waiting to break free.
"Distracted" fails almost completely as a social critique, and for the most ironic reason possible: Jackson's inability to remain focused. Instead of offering the sustained arguments necessary to prove her dark thesis, she flits from anecdote to anecdote, pausing briefly to make ponderous pronouncements only vaguely related to the topic(s) at hand. Rather than a detailed exploration of how societies slip into dark ages, we get mini-manifestoes against cremation and the evil of food designed to be eaten "on-the-go."
Indeed, Jackson loses sight of her main topic for chapters at a time. When she does return, it's all too often to offer up the sort of trite observations you might find in a lazy Op-Ed. "Grafted to our cell phones, we drive like drunks," she breathlessly warns. "Even if it kills us, we get in that call."
The problem isn't just that Jackson wanders off in the middle of her argument; it's that the argument itself is so maddeningly unformed. Acknowledging that ours is an age of "material riches, abundant information, and creative leaps," she has trouble explaining what her "dark age" might look like. "A dark age is not a one-dimensional time of . . . disintegration," she writes. "Rather, it is . . . a period of flux that often produces great technological and other gains yet ultimately results in a declining civilization and a desert-like spell of collective forgetting." Our technological and cultural creativity, in other words, is proof that we are doomed.
Toward the end of this gloomy book, Jackson offers a ray of hope: Research on Buddhist monks reveals that meditation can increase our ability to focus. But we may not need to become Buddhists; we might just need an Xbox 360. The video games Jackson so distrusts may distract kids from homework, but playing them well demands Zen-like focus.
I suppose I should sum up here. But I hear my Xbox calling. Gotta go. *