According to an apocryphal tale about the fall of Rome, the emperor Honorius was vacationing at his country home on the Adriatic while Rome was being sacked by the Goths in 410 CE. As Honorius busily tended his flock of prize poultry, a servant brought him the news that Rome had perished. "It is not an hour since she was feeding out of my hand," the emperor exclaimed with great shock. The servant hastened to clarify: it was the city that had perished, not the emperor's beloved bird by the same name.
Arguing, as the title of her book suggests, that we may be on the verge of a cultural decline that parallels dark ages of the past, Maggie Jackson recounts this tale in her introduction to Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. "Apocryphal as this story may be, the point is apt," she writes. "In the years leading into a dark age, societies often exhibit an inability to perceive or act upon a looming threat, such as a declining resource. Twilight cultures begin to show a preference for veneer and form, not depth and content" (26). In our case, according to Jackson, the looming threat, the warning sign of our twilight age, is that, thanks to our twitch-speed, rapid-fire lifestyles, we are squandering our most valuable cultural resource: "the capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention-- the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress" (13). Yet we may be too busy Googling, Twittering, text messaging, channel surfing, and updating our Facebook profiles even to notice.
Written in an easy, journalistic style that mixes snippets of theory with copious anecdotes, Distracted consists of nine chapters organized into three parts. Parts I and II explore the contours of our "landscape of distraction"-- from our tech-addicted habits and compulsive multitasking to the erosion of social ties and the increasing rootlessness of modern life-- while Part III considers the vulnerability of our digital storage methods, but also ends on a note of optimism, exploring the possibility of what Jackson calls a "renaissance of attention" to counter the spreading twilight of our ADD culture. (Whether the target of Jackson's argument is American culture in particular or 21st century culture in general is not clear. All her examples and data are from the US, but she never explicitly limits her thesis to American society.)
Many of Jackson's concerns echo the familiar complaints often aired by critics of the frenzied pace of modern life. Constantly plugged in and on the go, jumping from one task to another with punctuated attention, simultaneously navigating streams of data from iPod, cell phone, laptop, BlackBerry, we're cultivating a split-focus culture of distraction and detachment, intellectual fragmentation and sensory overload. Addicted to instant-click access, we expect knowledge to come in quick fixes and easily digestible info-bits, trading depth and nuance for bullet points and sound bites-- some books get taken off school reading lists if they don't make for good PowerPoint presentations, Jackson notes-- and swapping sustained thought and close attention for the shallow skimming and skipping encouraged by our online reading habits. The result, Jackson warns, is that "we are losing our capacity to create and preserve wisdom and slipping toward a time of ignorance that is paradoxically born amid an abundance of information and connectivity" (16). Though we have 50 million websites at our fingertips, for example, half of American 18- to 24-year olds can't find New York State on a map, almost 60% of 15-year-olds score at or below the most basic level of problem solving skills, and only 30% of college graduates are able to understand simple documents like food labels, Jackson reports.
Meanwhile, even as the Internet makes communication easier than ever before, a quarter of Americans-- more than double the number 20 years ago-- say that they have no close confidante, while just 17% of families in a UCLA study reported eating dinner together regularly. "We are becoming a nation of the untethered" (116), Jackson says, "skimming on the margins of our old settled ways of life" (110). In place of flesh-and-blood contact, we retreat into virtual worlds, in place of trust we install surveillance cameras, and in place of the shared rituals of cooking and eating, we gulp prepackaged meals grabbed on the fly. And as we increasingly look to technology to solve all of our problems-- developing empathetic robots, "smart" prosthetic limbs, and memory-boosting drugs, for example-- we are even eroding our very sense of humanity, according to Jackson. "We are blending with our tools and blurring the boundaries between human and machine in unprecedented ways," she argues. "Machine becomes manlike and man becomes machinelike, a convergence that may augment our capabilities yet reduce our humanity" (186).
Notwithstanding its topic, Distracted has some problems with focus that detract from its effectiveness. Despite its ostensibly clear organizational structure-- Parts I and II, for example, are each divided into chapters organized around what Jackson calls the "three pillars" of attention: focus, judgment, and awareness-- the book often reads too much like a loose patchwork of anecdotes and examples not adequately connected into the overall direction of the argument. In fact, sometimes the inclusion of particular anecdotes or topics in a given chapter can seem rather random. For example, it is not clear how the increased use of surveillance cameras or the phenomenon of "virtual cemeteries," online sites for grief and mourning, are connected to the problem of focus. Nor is it clear why the development of robots and advanced prosthetic limbs is connected to the problem of awareness.
Much about the book, however, is interesting and thought provoking, especially Jackson's discussion of the dangers of our addiction to multitasking. Working parents spend a quarter of their day multitasking, knowledge workers switch tasks an average of every three minutes on the job, almost one third of American teenagers juggle five to eight forms of media as they do their homework, and more than half of instant message users say that they always surf the Web, watch TV, talk on the phone, or play computer games at the same time, Jackson reports. Yet brain research shows that multitasking comes at the expense of cognitive efficiency, memory, and learning. Even something as simple as following a news story on TV while reading the ticker crawl at the bottom of the screen results in our remembering 10% fewer facts related to the story. (Perhaps that explains why 37% of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and 52% still think that he had strong ties to al-Qaida.)
No doubt Jackson is right that much about American culture is shallow and distracted, characterized by a "preference for veneer and form, not depth and content," as she puts it, "a stubborn blindness to the consequences of actions, from the leadership on down" (26). Jackson is certainly right that our collective lapses of attention are costly, and it's plausible that our hectic, overloaded, multitasked lives are at least partly to blame.
But although Jackson raises a number of important issues that deserve to be taken seriously, I found the doomsday rhetoric of an impending dark age to be unproductive. Distracted is intended to be a wake-up call summoning us to reflect on how we live and what it means for our future. "The waning of our powers of attention is occurring at such a rate and in so many areas of life that the erosion is reaching critical mass," Jackson writes. "We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age" (14). Yet Jackson's portentous statements about our dark, unraveling times, oft-repeated, simply tended to make me more likely to dismiss her claims as alarmist than to take them seriously as a wake-up call.
© 2009 Elisabeth Herschbach
Elisabeth Herschbach has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches in Rhode Island.