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Good Read #005: May I have your attention?

June 1, 2010

I just recently finished the book by author and journalist Maggie Jackson entitled Distracted : The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, 2008). Knowing my own tendencies to multitask and simultaneously move in many directions, I was interested to see what Jackson had to say on the subject.

The book is well-researched, drawing heavily on studies and the input of key researchers. Jackson’s premise for the book is her belief that “the way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention–the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.” (Intro) She goes on to state that this erosion of our attention has positioned us “on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age.” (Intro)

Honestly, I struggled with the flow of the book. There were portions that I found cohesive and particularly thought-provoking, such as the chapter on the written word, reading, and literacy. Overall, however, the book did not progressively connect well for me. And I was hoping that Jackson would move beyond a mere description of the problem and propose more of what she sees as potential solutions. She does begin to do so in the final chapter, but I was left slightly disappointed. With all of that said, I do believe this is a book worth taking up. I do agree with Jackson that–for better or for worse–we live in a society that is exponentially being infused with things that demand our attention and it is changing the way we interact with and perceive the world around us. Whether or not you agree with Jackson that we are “slipping toward a new dark age,” I will leave that to your judgment.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the book with a few intriguing quotes:

Chapter 1 — An introduction to the idea of how the “wired” world distracts us. It is worth noting that in tackling the issue of attention in today’s society, Jackson points out early in the book that technology is at the center of the issue but is not the focus.

Chapter 2 — Chapters 2-4 address what Jackson calls the “landscape of distraction” with its 3 key components–virtual reality, multitasking, and movement (mobility). Chapter 2 addresses the focus on the physical vs. focus on the virtual. Jackson discusses the effects of the virtual world on our physical connections.

Chapter 3 — Multitasking and how it negatively affects our judgment and productivity.

Chapter 4 — Mobility and its role in the “landscape of distraction.”

Distraction is the cost of our wondrous, liberating mobility, the price we pay for living untethered.

Chapter 5 — Surveillance, perception, and vision. This chapter focuses on privacy issues (perhaps timely with the recent swirl surrounding Facebook privacy concerns) and how a culture of surveillance damages trust.

Chapter 6 — The written word, reading, and literacy. Interesting chapter addressing our interaction with the written word. This chapter also touches ever-so-briefly on information literacy efforts in libraries.

Relations between book and [computer] screen are better described as dynamic, rather than a dichotomy. Both, after all, are communications technologies, which history tells us have a way of messily coexisting, rather than neatly canceling each other out.

The real question going forward is how we will read….

Chapter 7 — Human-Computer interaction. With a focus on smart computers and artificial intelligence (AI), Jackson ponders if we are entering a post-human era. Rather than machines becoming more like humans, are humans becoming more like machines?

What kind of people are we becoming as we develop increasingly intimate relationships with machines?

Chapter 8 — The erosion of cultural memory. Addresses the concept and challenge of preservation.

Making data is child’s play, but keeping it, alas, is like trying to preserve a sand castle from the tide.

A first scenario of doom involves waves of disappearing data.

To preserve is not to recapture what’s past but rather to change what’s saved, at the very least by shifting the context to the new world of the present.

This chapter also includes an interesting discussion of omni-preservation (saving everything) vs. selective preservation. Jackson seems to favor selectivity over saving everything. (It would be interesting to hear her take on the Library of Congress’ recent move to archive all of Twitter.)

…the thorny skill of selection was the foremost mandate of modern history’s greatest collectors. Embracing and rejecting, sifting and culling–that’s what we as ‘re-collectors’ were born to do.

Amassing towering alternate universes of saved experience marks the abdication of our own splendid multifaceted powers of remembering–and forgetting.

Chapter 9 — The role and value of attention. Here we find a lengthy discussion of the psychology behind what is classified as our three “networks of attention”–orienting, alerting, and the executive. It is here that Jackson offers her clearest solution to the problem of distraction: Attention is key, and it can be trained and taught.

We now hold the potential to know, shape, and utilize a full quiver of attention skills to combat a spreading culture of distraction.

So that’s it–my take on Distracted by Maggie Jackson. I wonder how many folks made it all the way to the end of this post?

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