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Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age [Hardcover]

Maggie Jackson
1.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 July 2008
We have oceans of information at our fingertips, yet we seek knowledge in Yahoo headlines glimpsed on the run. We are networked as never before, but we connect with friends and family via email and fleeting face-to-face moments that are rescheduled a dozen times.
Welcome to the land of distraction.

Despite our wondrous technologies and scientific advances, we are nurturing a culture of diffusion 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.

Distracted is a gripping exposé of this hyper-mobile, cyber-centric, attention-deficient life. Day by day, we are eroding our capacity for deep attention — the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. The implications for a healthy society are stark.

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. This is exciting news for all of us living in an age of overload.

In her sweeping quest to unravel the nature of attention and detail its losses, Maggie Jackson introduces us to scientists, cartographers, marketers, educators, wired teens, and even roboticists. She offers us a compelling wake-up call, an adventure story, and reasons for hope.

Pull over, hit the pause button, and prepare for an eye-opening journey. More than ever, we cannot afford to let distraction become the marker of our time.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 327 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (9 July 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591026237
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591026235
  • Product Dimensions: 22.8 x 16.2 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,005,514 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"In a typical scientist-cum-philosopher style, Jackson manages to ask all the right questions, and ultimately leaves it up to us to decide our own fate. And in case we still aren't paying attention, she slaps us upside the virtual head with a frightening suggestion: 'We just might be too busy, wired, split-focused, and distracted to notice a return to an era of shadows and fear.'" --Pop Matters, Jul. 31, 2008 "Usually when a book is really good, I'll say it was a page-turner or I couldn't out it down. Oddly enough, I can't say that about Distracted. The reason, however, is the book made me stop and think. The author would sometimes make a point so profound or so worth mulling over that I just had to stop and digest it for a while. How many books can you think of that make you want to do that?" --Mind Connection, June 21, 2008 " Jackson offers us both a wake-up call Chr(45) and a reason for hope." --Psych Links Blog, July 21 2008 "If you are in the mood for a serious look at how society is in a decline amidst the greatest explosion of technological advance in the history of the world, you will not be disappointed." --My Shelf.com, 2008 "Jackson is not a pessimist; she believes we have the capability to regain our ability to pay attention and avoid the coming crisis she warns of. But whether or not you believe we are headed into another dark age, as Jackson claims, there is no question that taking at least some of her ideas to heart would do us all good." --Culture Cartel.com, October 20, 2008 "Maggie Jackson's book Distracted will serve as a wonderful guide for us on this journey as we begin to recognize and confess the ways in which we daily are inattentive and distracted." --Englewood Review of Books, September 5, 2008 "Jackson raises a number of important issues that deserve to be taken seriously." --Metapsychology online reviews, Vol. 13, Issue 2, January 6, 2009 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
Do you understand a society better by looking at the edges or at the middle? That's the fundamental question that any social scientist and author must answer. Ms. Jackson shows her journalist roots by making alarmist arguments about a "dark age" based on looking at the most extreme forms of inattention in society and extrapolating those extremes into a future where that's the norm. In doing so, she throws anecdote after anecdote pretty harmlessly against the wall.

Do you agree that quiet is better than too much noise? Do you think that being able to concentrate is something worth cultivating? Do you think that most of what's on the Internet is worthless junk? Are you interested in people staying focused so they can make better judgments? Do you find meditation helpful? If you said "yes" to those questions, you'll agree with this book . . . but you won't learn much that you didn't know already unless you read nothing about the way brains work. Even if you want to learn about brain physiology, this isn't a very good book.

I found the overstatement to be irritating, as well. Otherwise, I would have rated the book at three stars.

You can lead a person to education, but you can't make him or her think. that's always been a problem. The new context just adds color to the old dilemma.
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4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Need advice on what to know and think? 9 Jan 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A silly book that ought to take some of its own advice, given that its central thesis is not exactly focussed...Jackson has a particular version of what it is to know and to think, without wondering too much about alternatives except to condemn them. Slating new technology for its ways of reducing attention, she then branches out into a critique of technology itself and its inherent evil rather than its shortcomings connected to attention or thought. There is plenty of arch-conservative, puritanical self-denial-as-the-way-to-enlightenment speak until we are startled to be treated to a sermon on the coming dark age of a culture of forgetting, apparently redeemable if we would only take up Buddhism. Terrible stuff.
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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  51 reviews
197 of 207 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that deserves your undivided attention 22 Jun 2008
By M. L Lamendola - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A core concept of the martial arts is focus. That's where you get your power from ("your chi is concentrated"). The laser, which we use to cut through the hardest of steel, is nothing more than focused light. Any endeavor that requires brainpower, from sports to engineering, requires the ability to tune out everything except the task at hand. The ability to focus is a learned skill, and most people aren't learning it. In today's video and sound bite world, in fact, massive numbers of people are unlearning it.

Why does the stupidity epidemic continue to spread, despite its horrible cost? One answer may simply be that people are too distracted to pay attention. Consequently, they are not fully engaging their brains and focusing on what they are reading, saying, seeing, or hearing. This is a real problem in, for example, the task of driving an automobile. All of us can spot the "cell phone driver" from a distance, and there's a reason why.

It's the same reason this country has a shortage of qualified engineers, a shortage of senior project managers (average age now for the SMs in the construction industry is north of sixty), and such widespread ignorance of basic science, geography, and other subjects that require study. It's why only about half of voting-age Americans can correctly identify the three branches of the federal government.

When people are chronically distracted, something is wrong with their ability, desire, or discipline to filter out nonessential things and focus on what matters or what really has value. The result is a watered down life experience and a weakened intellect.

The effect is so pronounced and ubiquitous that, Jackson asserts, we as a society are poised on the edge of a coming dark time. I'm the first person to cry "alarmist" when an author raises dire warnings. But in this case, I have to agree with Jackson. When you read her book, which is the result of intense research, you will probably also agree.

Many other factors contribute to the stupidity epidemic, such as toxic diets, stupidity immersion (e.g., television), idiotic lyrics blaring from radios, lack of serious reading, and a failed "education" system. But the widespread lack of focus may be the main problem.

The cultural norms of today work against focus, as this book explains. Fortunately, that doesn't mean you have to accept those norms and sink into mindlessness. Jackson provides insight into the lack of focus issue and further insight into how to avoid being a casualty of this intelligence-sapping problem.

This book is well-researched, well-written, and timely. Unlike many works that hit the non-fiction list today, it actually is non-fiction. Given the subject, the author could easily digress into editorializing her personal political agenda (which is a common problem with "non" fiction today). But, she doesn't. In fact, I have no idea what it is.

The author stays focused on the issues the book is about, which, given what the book is about, should be no surprise.

If you're looking for something that will provide a formulaic solution to our ADHD culture, or ten steps to inoculate yourself against the stupidity epidemic, this isn't it. The author isn't pushing easy self-help solutions that she can later talk about on Oprah. Nor is she using a book as a way to promote herself for gigs on the rubber chicken circuit. She wrote an intellectually serious work that is engaging and enlightening.

As the author points out, much of what we read, hear, and say today is just surface noise. That's not what you get in this book. What you get is a properly developed work that is well-worth reading.

Earlier, I said Distracted is well-researched. That's a qualitative statement, so let me quantify it. The book is 268 pages from start to finish, followed by 50 pages of tightly-written bibliography (nearly 20% the size of the book itself ). There are about 60 references per chapter, with 79 references for Chapter 6. Somehow, Jackson manages to weave all this research into a flowing, engaging narrative.

Usually when a book is really good, I'll say it was a page-turner or I couldn't put it down. Oddly enough, I can't say that about Distracted. The reason, however, is the book made me stop and think. The author would sometimes make a point so profound or so worth mulling over that I just had to stop and digest it for a while. How many books can you think of that make you want to do that?

Distracted consists of three Parts. Part I explains where we are now, and consists of four chapters. These give us the "lay of the land" and many examples to show how things are. Part II delves into the "deepening twilight" and consists of three chapters. These help us see how we're trending the wrong way and what factors are contributing to those trends.

Part III poses the question, "Dark Times or Renaissance of Attention?" At several points, I put the book down just to think about some point or another, because especially in this part of the book she says much that just makes you want to stop and think.

In Chapter 8, "McThinking and the Future of the Past," Jackson looks at such issues as cultural memory, how a child's ability to delay gratification is a reliable predictor of success as an adult, and what the difference is between cultivating information and merely stockpiling it. A key concept I like is that the ability to select what to retain and what to discard is an important part of being able to handle information.

In Chapter 9, "The Gift of Attention," Jackson looks at the breaking developments in cognitive research, especially in relation to the ability to deliberately focus one's attention. Some of what she reveals is more academic, while other revelations have more immediate and practical value for the reader. She doesn't wrap it all up in a nice, neat conclusion because there are many things the reader can conclude while reading this chapter. But a common theme in such conclusions is that we can choose to be in charge of our minds rather than let distractions blow us around like so much tumbleweed.

As someone who has studied the stupidity epidemic for several years now, I am increasingly convinced we (as individuals) can choose to let ourselves become stupid or we can make deliberate choices that, by exercise of some personal discipline, spare us that fate. Most people aren't making those deliberate choices or exercising that discipline. But, many are. All of us can.

Being mindful strengthens the mind. When you're constantly distracted, you can't be mindful--you're too busy shifting mental gears all the time. The "default value" is chronic distraction, but the good news is you can choose to be mindful and you can make other choices that keep you from being chronically distracted. Jackson shows us what some of those choices are, and that's also good news. The choices aren't hard to make or to carry out.

Jackson's book goes beyond my pet interest, however. While chronic distraction is sapping our collective IQs, it's also destroying our ability to interact with each other. Here's something to think about (not in Jackson's book). Even critics of Bill Clinton acknowledge his charm and charisma. When Alan Greenspan went to meet Clinton for the first time, he was doubtful that he wanted to continue on as Chairman of the Federal Reserve with Clinton in the White House. When Greenspan left that meeting, he felt tremendously loyal to Clinton. From doubting Thomas to committed supporter in a single meeting. How did Clinton do it? Greenspan said, "He made me feel like the center of his universe. Everything else was blanked out and he was totally there. He focused on me."

When one person focuses on another and listens to that person, the other person feels respected. Respect is the foundation of any good relationship. When people never truly engage with other people, haven't they also given up on what it means to be human?

If someone is talking to you in person and the phone rings, show respect by ignoring the phone. If you have a television on and someone visits you, turn the television off and focus on that person. If a child talks to you, stop what you are doing and listen. Be completely there. If you don't understand the power of such actions and the cost of failing to take them, read Chapter Two.
78 of 90 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An ironic investigation 26 Jan 2009
By David D. Metcalf - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In a culture in which Attention Deficit Disorder seems endemic, the health and integrity of American communities appears waning, and individuals seem incapable of managing real and meaningful relationships and communications, Maggie Jackson's Distracted tackles a fascinating and important topic. However, while Jackson addresses these issues, her investigation wanders, her thesis remains unproven, and both reader and writer ultimately end up 'distracted' from answering the key questions the book proposes.

Jackson's book is not without its merits. She examines the crucial issue of attentional capacity and growth in children, and how electronic stimuli fracture attention and foster an 'attention deficit' society. She effectively discusses America's simultaneity - the idea that internet connectivity, technology, and travel, have rendered people both 'everywhere and nowhere.' Decrying this neo-nomadic culture, she also asserts - with convincing narratives - that simultaneity and attentional distraction tends toward the dissolution of American families and relationships.

However, "Distracted" also delves into topics that fail to demonstrably progress its thesis. Jackson discusses individual people and problems which only bear tangential importance to the implications of a 'distracted' society. The virtual world's treatment of death, the dangerous preference of information by an unreliable internet rather than books, and a curious digression on the eating habits of an overworking population, are but a few topics that waste the reader's time. Here and elsewhere, Jackson tries to weave a quilt with discordant fabrics and patterns, and the result is a disjointed and scattered product.

Inevitably, the expository pace of the book slows to a crawl, and what could and should have been said in far less pages and with a more direct pattern of argument, is danced around. The investigation wanders into anecdotal digressions that Jackson fails to convincingly tie to her overall theme, and her argument becomes - ironically - "distracted." The culprit might be Jackson's palpable nostalgia for all things past, a disposition that drags her into these digressions and ultimately leads her to her utterly unsubstantiated doomsday prediction of a "coming dark age." I'm sorry Ms. Jackson (and Outkast), a reader will not simply digest portentous soothsaying without you convincingly connecting the dots of such an assertion. The theme this book tackles is so significant and enticing, yet at the end, I can not help but feel so unsatisfied at the unreached potential.

The scattered structure of the book mimes the message, and the argument's path takes several wrong turns to the point that the reader is lost. However, the book should be commended for its humor, because it's occasionally satirically ironic. As reader Kirtland Peterson astutely concluded, this book is "a product of the culture it describes." Unfortunately, within the text of her book, her amorphous thesis achieves the very simultaneity of the neo-nomadic American society she describes: "Everywhere and nowhere."
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Now, Readers, Please Pay...Uh...Attention! 1 July 2008
By Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There is little doubt that over the past few decades, particularly during what has been referred to as "the computer age," the world of intellectual activity has substantially changed. So-called "multitasking" has become common. "Sound-bites" provide many people with all the news they get. Rapid-moving video games provide many with most of the entertainment they experience. The technology of "virtual" reality is becoming so "real" it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what is "actually real" from what is "virtually real." Add to all this the reports that attention deficit symdrome (ADD) and hyperactive behavior among the young are growing problems in our fast-moving society, and one might be tempted to conclude that we are, in fact, "distracted" to the point where the erosion of attention will result in a soon-to-occur "dark age."

This latter point, of course, is a paraphrase of the title of Maggie Jackson's latest book "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." The major problem we face now, Jackson seems to say, is INATTENTION; that is, we are no longer engaging in such activities as reflection, searching for deeper meanings, taking time to relax and participate in traditionally intimate conversations, getting to know people in a personable way, taking the time to discern the really important from the merely transitory, and so on. We as a society and as individuals are, in other words, not paying ATTENTION. At least to the things we ought to be paying proper attention to.

In her book, Jackson provides a historical survey of the problem, cites a lot of research drawn from a wide range of scholarly fields including empirical science and philosophy, and provides quotations from a diverse population of thinkers who have considered aspects of the main problem she addresses. There is a lot of detail here to be digested; the reader, hopefully, is not suffering from the very problem the author discusses.

One may argue, however, as to whether the current situation will lead to a genuine "dark age." Some might say that that suggestion might be just a little bit hyperbolic. Nevertheless, the author does raise some interesting questions and attempts to provide some workable solutions. So, in this period of constant motion, multitasking, social networking, instant messaging, and electronic overload, it might just be worthwhile for everyone to slow down a little, sit back and relax, read this book, and pay ATTENTION to what Jackson is saying.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Out of Touch With Reality 22 Feb 2010
By Zoltan Korliss - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"During a two-week stay in Norway, my daughter, then aged thirteen, called home one day by cell phone from a mountaintop. My husband thought at first she'd been hurt, but she simply wanted him to resolve a midhike teen debate about some Beatles' lyrics."

For me, this passage pretty well sums up the worldview of author Maggie Jackson as expressed through her recent book, Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. The book is filled with anecdotes, several of them personal, about people who blithely jet-set around the country and the world on a whim: a woman who flies to Italy for the weekend to run in a marathon with a friend from London; college professors meeting for lunch having just returned from international conferences; a group of friends who fly to Maine for a "weekend of restaurant hopping"; or 500-mile day trips to "do lunch."

The 500-mile lunch journey was one of the author's excursions. She used it to illustrate how blasé she claims our culture has become about travel; when she mentioned to persons she encountered that she was traveling 500 miles to meet for lunch, she claims she received no response from the cab drivers or ticket agents with whom she shared this information. Jackson interprets this as indicative of a culture in which long journeys have become commonplace.

As a commonplace nobody myself, I would interpret the silence with which Jackson was met differently. Some people have to work for a living. I'm sure the cab driver put in at least 500 miles that day. The difference is, he was working, covering the same airport or train station loop again and again, day after day, barely making enough of a salary to pay his bills and keep a roof over his head. A 500-mile day trip to meet for lunch is not an option in his world. The cab driver had two options for responding to the perky gloating of Ms. Jackson: ignore her, or punch her in the face.

Jackson seems to think that America, or at least the America that is the audience for her book, is a world of "doing lunch" and trips to Europe; a life of academe for the professionally accomplished and casual first-date sex for young cyber-savvy adults. It would be difficult to count which she references more, airport lobbies or trips to MIT. In her world, all young people are enrolled in college and all adults are connoisseurs of fine cheeses (which, of course, they make special trips to purchase and consume in the country of origin).

Overwhelmed by the trappings of the author's world, I lost focus on the gist of her argument. Indeed, beyond what she states in her title, I don't feel Jackson made an effective effort to restate or clarify her position; nor did she, in her rambling, anecdotal travelogue, present a convincing case for her argument. Dark age or not, jetting to Italy to run a marathon, spending a spur-of-the-moment weekend restaurant-hopping in Maine, and meeting hot, willing chicks over the internet, while a bit decadent, hardly sounds like a society on the brink of collapse. It requires a fair amount of orderliness to keep both airlines and internet dating sites running. We're still a long way from a grim, Pythonesque "bring out your dead" scenario.

The book includes heavily documented endnotes. A digression into the history of the fork as an eating utensil was interesting. Overall, however, I found the book alienating. Jackson is not writing about my world. I see, too, that I am the first person to borrow Distracted in the two years the book has been on the shelves in the Hawaii State Library System, which suggests that the all-encompassing "we" she uses throughout her text is more than a little myopic in scope.

Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2008) by Maggie Jackson.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Distracted 5 Jun 2008
By Pamela Bailey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In a very readable and engaging style this book calls attention to what many of us feel daily in our over stimulated lives; the lack of connectivity with one's environment and the void created by relationships lacking depth. Once I began reading the the book I found myself making a conscious effort to fully focus on the task I was involved in or person with whom I was interacting. Immediately I felt more productive and rewarded, and yet I was amazed by how unaccustomed I am to not multi-task.

Jackson's book is serious in its exploration of the dangers of societal ADD, but also uplifting in its presentation of the intrinsic rewards, both individualy and globally, of simply "paying attention".
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