Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age


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...

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Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

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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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this richly detailed and passionately argued book, Jackson (What's Happening to Home?) warns that modern society's inability to focus heralds an impending Dark Age-an era historically characterized by the decline of a civilization amid abundance and technological advancement. Jackson posits that "our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion" and addiction to multitasking are "eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention-the building block of intimacy, wisdom and cultural progress" and stunting society's ability to "comprehend what's relevant and permanent." The author provides a lively historical survey of attention, drawing upon philosophy, the impact of scientific innovations and her own experiences to investigate the possible genetic and psychological roots of distraction. While Jackson cites modern virtual life (the social network Facebook and online interactive game Second Life), her research is largely mired in the previous century, and she draws weak parallels between romance via telegraph and online dating, and supernatural spiritualism and a newfound desire to reconnect. Despite the detours (a cultural history of the fork?), Jackson has produced a well-rounded and well-researched account of the travails facing an ADD society and how to reinvigorate a "renaissance of attention." (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

These two thoughtful, well-written books both decry the sorry state of literacy in this country and its myriad implications. Bauerlein (English, Emory Univ.), former director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, is no stranger to the evidence of the decline of reading in America and its cultural consequences in our society. He focuses on the "new attitude, this brazen disregard of...books and reading" among young people. Journalist Jackson is more inclusive in her devastating account of how all of us-not just students-have lost the capacity to pay sustained attention to anything longer than a PowerPoint presentation, claiming that she sees "stunning similarities between past dark ages and our own era." Much of Bauerlein's book is reminiscent of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and readers will probably take similar issue with some of Bauerlein's elitist pretensions (e.g., that kids read Harry Potter because other kids read it, not because they like it). These are well-informed and well-argued books, however, and both are highly recommended for all libraries.
—Ellen Gilbert

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591027485
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 9/22/2009
  • Pages: 327
  • Sales rank: 416,731
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Maggie Jackson (New York, NY) is an award-winning author and journalist who writes the popular "Balancing Acts" column in the Boston Globe. Her work also has appeared in The New York Times and on National Public Radio, among other national publications. Her acclaimed first book, What’s Happening to Home? Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age, examined the loss of home as a refuge.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 9

Introduction 11

Part I Lengthening Shadows: Exploring Our Landscape of Distraction

Chapter 1 Wired Love ca. 1880-Tracing the Roots of an Attention-Deficient Culture 29

Chapter 2 Focus-E-mailing the Dead and Other Forays into Virtual Living 45

Chapter 3 Judgment-Of Molly's Gaze and Taylor's Watch: Why More Is Less in a Split-Screen World 71

Chapter 4 Awareness-Portable Clocks and Little Black Boxes: The Sticking Point of Mobility 97

Part II Deepening Twilight: Pursuing The Narrowing Path

Chapter 5 Focus-Invisible Tethers: The Delicate Art of Surveillance-Based Love 127

Chapter 6 Judgment-Book and Word on the "Edge of Chaos" 153

Chapter 7 Awareness-The Post-Human Age: A Battle for Our Attention 183

Part III Dark Times ... Or Renaissance of Attention?

Chapter 8 McThinking and the Future of the Past 213

Chapter 9 The Gift of Attention-A Renaissance at Hand 237

Acknowledgments 267

Endnotes 269

Index 311

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 9, 2010

    Challenging, Thoughtful Analysis of a Problem we are facing today...

    Recently, my husband suggested a book for me to read. It was Distracted by Maggie Jackson. I began reading it. This book is very different than the books I usually review. It is a sociological and at times psychological analysis of our attention span and some of our cultural habits as a people. The premise of this book is (in my words) that the rise of technology in our world is contributiong to a decline in our ability to focus and pay attention. Our relationships and learning are suffering because of it. So, is all of the technology in our world really progress? Is this the progress we want?
    From the beginning, this book really made me think. My husband and I have chosen not to text and instead we have prepaid cell phones. We are very low tech in many ways. Even so, I've realized how often I check my email and facebook and how much time has gotten sucked away by me watching shows online. I've even started to have eerie and surreal thoughts about what is real and what is virtual. My attention span is being split and is declining. I am distracted from what I really need to do and what is most worth investing my time in.
    Reading this book reinforced some of the things I have seen in myself on a micro level and have been concerned for our society about on a macro level. Texting is really only the tip of the iceberg and this book opened my eyes to a lot of things that are going on that I didn't even realize. For example, Maggie Jackson quoted a study that found that 20% of the players on EverQuest "say that they consider themselves denizens of the game who are just visiting Earth." Distracted, p. 56. Wow! Truly, the virtual world has taken hold. It is seeming more real to many people than the life they are really living in person.

    I highly recommend this book. The writing is good (as you can see from the quotes), though at times very intellectual. But, it is worth pressing on and taking your time to get through. The parts I learned the most from were in the first half. There is a large section in the second half that is about a study involving Buddhism and attention. Buddhism is written about as a behavior/lifestyle rather than as a religion.

    One last quote I think is worth pondering:
    "If we want to shape our own future, we must consider how we want to live and how we want to define progress, and as we do so, prepare to welcome to our ranks the thinking person's most prickly yet necessary companion-doubt." from Distracted by Maggie Jackson, pg. 215

    Please note that I was given a complimentary copy of this book for review by Prometheus Books.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 19, 2010

    Good concept. Awful writing.

    I chose this book for a class thinking it just might give me a couple of adequate reasons to tell people to stop rudely interrupting their conversations to answer a text. A dumb and personal goal, I know, but this book did end up giving me several points I could share with chronic texters, that is, once I could will myself to get past the crazy theories and the god awful writing style that Maggie Jackson unfortunately has.

    This book isn't just all about the problems of texting, but about technology as a whole negatively affecting our minds, relationships with people, attention spans, even the way we eat. Basically, the book's whole goal is to try to persuade its readers that technology will be the humans' undoing, that the human (Well, more specifically American) race will become so dependent on technology that a dark age of stupidity and ignorance will come about. Distracted had amazing potential, and there was truth to it in some aspects, but there were just too many insane theories and biased, unbelievable statistics to swallow. For example, all Americans are becoming nomadic due to technology, or all Americans are wanting to be in multiple places at once. As for the statistics, they are so ridiculous that I wrote them off as just that, ridiculous. For example, the average teenager multitasks on five to eight different things at once. Maybe I'm just not average, but my normal is two to three things at once.

    As for Jackson's writing style, I literally have never seen worse writing. I could get past the droning statistics, the unnecessary physical descriptions of the people Jackson interviewed, or even the random quotes that sometimes didn't exactly apply to what she was writing about, but her way of proving her points was the most ironic and laughably bad thing I have ever seen. Let me explain: First Jackson would present the point, then she would introduce a story to prove her point, lacking any sort of transition whatsoever. This story would be so detailed, so chock full of unnecessary complexities and things that didn't matter whatsoever that the point she was trying to prove would inevitably become lost to the reader... until BLAM, her point randomly shows up again and lacking any sort of transition, of course. It's confusing, and for a book writing about an ADD society and distraction, extremely ironic. It's like she gets distracted while writing Distracted.

    In the end, I came to this book with an open mind, but had to plod through it to get it over with. Many other people in my AP class, smart people who generally love to read, ended up despising this book. Distracted could have been great, but thanks to Jackson distracting her own readers with her god awful writing style and worthless details along with many overly dramatic theories, this book was an extremely painful read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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