Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

Front Cover
Prometheus Books, 2009 - Psychology - 327 pages
4 Reviews
Do you text during family dinners or read e-mails during meetings? Does your spouse learn about your day from Facebook? Do you get news about the world by scanning online headlines while also doing something else? Welcome to the land of distraction. Despite our wondrous technologies and scientific advances, we are nurturing a culture of diffusion, fragmentation, and detachment. Our attention is scattered among the beeps and pings of a push-button world. We are less and less able to pause, reflect, and deeply connect.
In Distracted, journalist Maggie Jackson ponders our increasingly cyber-centric world and fears we're entering a dark age of interruption that will render us unable to think critically, work creatively or cultivate meaningful relationships. Jackson warns of what can happen when we lose our ability to sustain focus and erode our capacity for deep attention—the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. The implications for a healthy society are stark. Societal ADD will adversely affect parenting, marriages, personal safety, education and even democracy. And yet we can recover our powers of focus through a renaissance of attention. Neuroscience is just now decoding the workings of attention, with its three pillars of focus, awareness, and judgment, and revealing how these skills can be shaped and taught. In her sweeping quest to unravel the nature of attention and detail its losses, Jackson offers us a compelling wake-up call, an adventure story, and reasons for hope. Put down your smart phone and prepare for an eye-opening journey. We can—and must—learn to focus attention in this Twitter culture.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - snash - LibraryThing

The book presents a fascinating and frightening collection of evidence for our distracted lives; distracted by split focus, mobility that erodes our sense of space, involvement in the digital world ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - revslick - LibraryThing

Great book in explaining all the ways we have become distracted and continue to go over the edge into an ADD/ADHD dark age, but the author neglects solution and/or application of the argument entirely except to say be more attentive. Read full review

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About the author (2009)

Preface to the New Edition

The pace was brisk and the dialogue frenetic. The one-liners flew thick and fast. In a small New York theater, I was watching Distracted, a play centered on a mother''s struggle to cope with her nine-year-old son''s attention deficit disorder. The year was 2009. Onstage, a mammoth wall of television monitors spewing sports, news, and sitcoms competed with the actors for the spectators'' attention. And just in front of me, two women in the audience compounded the evening''s cacophony with a running sideshow of phone-checking and chatter.

Nearly a decade ago, the world was growing ever more noisy and overloaded. We didn''t need to fire up a laptop, a BlackBerry, or its new competitor the iPhone to feel the insistent clamor of modern life. Were these glorious new riches for the heart and mind or an excess to be feared? we wondered. "This is an ADD society," Distracted''s playwright Lisa Loomer told an interviewer, "and I don''t know whether this is a dysfunction or a difference." It was the heyday, after all, of our yearning to live in the fast lane. Multitasking was a job description, a sure mark of success. Juggling was a mother''s main ambition, the booster rocket to having it all. The problem of distraction, we fervently hoped, was someone else''s burden, a malady for those who simply couldn''t keep up. We didn''t need to pay much attention to the costs of this way of living, or so we thought. The future was ours to splice. Distracted, the play, was billed as a comedy.

Now the curtain rarely falls on quick-cut, split-focus living. A crisis of inattention has crept onto center stage of an increasingly technological world. Skimming as a mainstay, days mired in trivia, interactions faceless and fractured, perpetually shattered focus: all these are no longer the daily diet of an elite and busy few. Toddlers stare with glazed eyes at the screen of the moment, oblivious to the real world blooming all around them. Early on, they learn that neat, easy answers come from gleaming little boxes that mesmerize their parents. In an era prizing diffusion, the young in effect are groomed to be half there, in class or at the dinner table, in the office or crossing the street. By one estimate, people check their devices an average of eighty-five times or more a day, anxiously searching for yet another dopamine-laced reward. So habituated are we to the siren song of being elsewhere that the mere presence of our own phone, silent and untouched, dramatically undermines our powers of focus. A Pandora''s box has sprung open. The struggle now seems real, and we are increasingly torn and uneasy. Americans are almost evenly divided over whether technology has had a positive overall effect on their lives. A majority of middle and high school teachers now believe that technologies do more to distract students than to help them academically. Is all this just the price to be paid for progress? Or are we, at growing cost to our very humanity, chasing a mirage?

A decade ago, the signs were all there and this book sounded a prescient warning. We have been perilously slow, however, in waking up to a crisis of our own making and even to the depths of our distraction. Avid multitaskers, for instance, are least able to juggle well and yet are most confident in their ability to do so. Or consider that beckoning phone. In laboratory studies, most of those whose focus is impaired in the presence of their devices later insist that they have not been affected at all. They are oblivious to what scientist Adrian Ward calls the "brain drain" of distrac-tion. Are we at last willing to question our hubris and take the full measure of our plight? Are we ready to face up to one of the most pressing problems of our age? Today I see our growing unease as a starting point, a potent spur toward an urgently needed reckoning. Attention is the stepping-stone to wisdom, intimacy, and creativity. It is the capacity that decides the fate of the present moment and determines the shape of the future. Without it, we are adrift. It is now time to focus on what matters and give attention its due.

As I write these words, a public outcry has erupted, condemning the behemoths of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple for failing to protect our data and our politics from hackers. But perhaps most unsettling has been the discovery that the inventors whom we so revere have themselves been hacking our minds. "Their most precious asset, is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it," writes critic Franklin Foer. To public applause, Google turncoat Tristan Harris reveals the brain-hacking tricks that the "world''s smartest minds" have devised to influence people''s every online move: the slot machine-like bursts of rewards that keep us hooked to our devices, the urgency implied by notifications that constantly interrupt us, and the video autoplay that undercuts a viewer''s agency. Day by day, increasingly sophisticated technologies exploit the ceaseless yearning for validation and novelty that underlies human survival. "It''s the devil''s work," a sales executive tells me, holding up his phone as we stand outside a funeral home waiting in line to enter a wake. He seems distressed and yet proud that he is constantly needed, or so his device tells him. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him struggle to finish a text just before we reach the casket.

Is escape then our best recourse for salvaging what one app developer calls our "cognitive liberty"? Not long ago, a detox referred to a renunciation of drugs or alcohol by abusers; now it is more often synonymous with a comic-tragic hiatus from technology that''s open to all. A grand-mother relates that her friends force their grandchildren to park their screens in baskets by the front door when they visit. Professors assign brief withdrawals to tremulous students. Joining a burgeoning market-place for digital detox retreats, hotels from Paris to Pittsburgh offer to lock up guests'' devices before ushering them to tech-free spas or suites. The off button, we believe, can keep distraction at bay, allowing for a magical restoration of all that we have lost in a time of stolen attention. It offers a Romantic hope, a page from Rousseau: if we can withdraw from our devices, we can be cleansed of the toxins of digital living and recover the gifts of an attentive mind. We once again can frolic, as Keats wrote in Ode to Psyche, in "the wreath''d trellis of a working brain."

Yet so often we falter, eschewing or outright failing the Facebook Fast or Media Sabbath. Sixty-five percent of American adults deem periodic unplugging important for their mental health, yet less than a third of those who say this do so. In one experiment, most of one thousand college students from ten countries couldn''t last twenty-four hours without media, even for a class assignment. Some quit after just half an hour. When I interviewed University of Maryland students taking part in a pilot study for the project, many admitted to the merits of the detox. They had paid more attention to their studies and felt more productive. Yet the silence and aloneness of an unmediated day unnerved them. "I was out of my element almost," said a junior, a journalism major from Boston. "I had no connection to anything." In the end, the grand forces of distraction seem too relent-less, too inevitable, and surely too inviting to be tamed with a mere respite. And so we increasingly turn back to the machine for answers, hoping that the mechanized marvels that beset us can protect us as well.

"Technology Promised to Make Living Easier, but Complicated It Instead. The Answer: More Tech," trumpets the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal article about the apps and gadgets that can help us curb our tech dependence. Extending the detox to small slivers of the day, the spartan LightPhone or popular Freedom or Concentrate apps block out parts or all of the enticing Web. Or we can take a step further and ask our machinery to curate our moment-to-moment focus: the ebb and flow of our inbox, the news and jokes we see, the times we wake or sleep. By allowing a meditation app to choose which practice that I next under-take, I am for a moment giving it free rein over my mind. Soon screens will have "attentive user interfaces" that watch us in order to learn when and how best to interrupt us with that urgent call from the boss or extra-neous text from mom. Their efforts to score "maximum informational throughput," we should note, will be drawn from studying human habits that are in turn increasingly shaped by machines.

Even as we begin to rue what technology does to us, we are asking all the more what it can do for us. Our species always has been a tool user extraordinaire, a crafty seeker of ways to augment its capabilities. Now as we grow seamlessly connected to enchanting artificial intelligences, we begin to treat them less as tools and more as coaches, sages, nursemaids, and confidantes. More than a third of smartphone users rate their devices as more than or equally important to their close friends. Tell me, Alexa, should I date this guy? How do I look today? What should I do next? Users pose these kinds of questions to the AI-driven assistants, now used by twenty-five million Americans. To outsource control of our attention to the devices that we yearn to trust and revere is but a simple step. With the flick of a switch, we can off-load care of our unruly minds and cure our human failings. Or can we? When my daughter was eleven years old, administrators at her school decided to lend each student a laptop for use in class and at home. Soon alarmed by the tide of easy diversions that had been unleashed, the school installed a blocki

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