Distracted: Q&A with Maggie Jackson

Maggie Jackson
Wednesday, May 1st 2013
May/Jun 2013

Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and former columnist for The Boston Globe. She wrote Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, 2009) and What's Happening to Home: Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age (Sorin Books, 2002).

In your latest book you prophesy the coming of a new Dark Age. You write, "The premise of this book is simple. The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention: the building blocks of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress." What do you mean by "the way we live"? What are we doing that's eroding our attention and creating this age of distraction?
The first thing that comes to mind is that we have our eyes glued to the gadgetry. We live now in an atmosphere of almost constant media exposure, basically looking away from what's going on around us. Kids now spend nearly ten hours exposed to media each day, and the average person switches tasks every three minutes. There's an inattention to what's going on around us, and there's also the fragmentation of our attention: the distraction caused by hopscotching through our day. Sound-bites, data points, and skipping around are corrosive to the deep, thoughtful, focused attention we need at times.

In our age, many people flit around on the surface like jet-skiers, and we don't seem to have many deep-sea divers.
In order to make data evolve from information into knowledge and wisdom, we need processes that sometimes involve stillness, quiet, and the ability to tenaciously wrestle with a problem. The types of distractions I've described in my book run counter to that. There are different types of attention. As human beings, we are born to pay attention to what's new in our environment. This enables us to survive and allows us to move forward and be flexible. At the same time, human beings always need to be aware of their goals, of what they'll be doing in five years. So if we're always reacting to what's new in our environment’every beep, ping, Yahoo headline’we're undercutting the highest order human abilities, which are planning, evaluation, and assessment. That's called executive attention. It's not just the fragmentation or lack of tenacity or hyperactivity; it's also our reactivity.

Regarding the different "departments" of our lives’politics, economics, religion’there is concern these days that people aren't thinking about the future, that people aren't thinking very deeply about what this means for us ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. Is that part of the immaturity this distraction has helped to produce in our lives?
It's interesting you use the word "immaturity," because I describe the smartphone as a kind of teddy bear as well as a cognitive prosthetic. I think there is an insecurity related to this constant need to be needed’the constant need now to tweet, which used to be blogging. I thought originally that this massive interest in blogging was all about the fact that we're not really listening to one another, so we have to pour it out to whoever might be listening. So I think immaturity is an interesting concept. Distraction does drag us down developmentally. The shortsightedness of all of us who are really only looking to the end of our noses every single day is very, very disturbing.

Going back to the point of the Dark Age, I did a tremendous amount of research on what Dark Ages constituted in the past. What I found is that they are oftentimes periods of high technological achievement’from the discovery of the olive in ancient Greece to certain types of shipping in ancient China, to the medieval invention of the compass and the university system. These were great inventive times, but times, nevertheless, of great cultural loss and forgetting. There just wasn't the ability to keep up with or manage information or to preserve a heritage. There was a huge time of "cultural forgetting," as Jane Jacobs, the urban thinker, puts it. I don't think we're in a Dark Age right now, but we are on the cusp. We're risking a Dark Age when we undermine our ability to pay attention, which is our most important human faculty.

How do you respond to people who say that the same fears arose about books when Gutenberg came along? It did create a loss of cultural memory, oral culture, and so forth, but look at the great benefit.
There are always costs and benefits to any new technology; in fact, the doubts about the written word go all the way back to Plato. He lamented the fact that our memories would shrink once we moved away from an oral civilization. But you can also argue that memory is extended through books or even the Post-it note. There are always costs and benefits. The point here is not to say that we've seen criticism before, that people have criticized our gadgets before. The point is to wake up to the challenges facing us today.

We really need to be concerned with what's going on in our lives, but solving the issue of distraction isn't a cure-all. Recapturing our attention isn't going to solve poverty or crime, but it's a starting point, and we need to look with clarity at our technologies and not lose perspective because we're so enamored with these toys’these shiny gizmos and gadgets that beep and put us in touch with celebrity news and other trivia. We're so enamored with what we've invented that we lose perspective on what it's doing to us.

So when we have developed discernment, then we can choose what we'll allow ourselves to be distracted by. But you're saying that there's so much distraction, younger people aren't necessarily developing the tools for this discernment.
Exactly. When we need to focus, can we? When we have the rare and wonderful opportunity to face one another and have a deep conversation, are we doing that? Can we put aside those gadgets when we need to? Scientists now agree that there are three types of attention: awareness, which is wakefulness to your surroundings; focus, which is a spotlight of your mind; and there is the executive attention that I mentioned, which is evaluating, planning, and assessing. These are arrows in our quiver that we need to know when and how to use and what environment is most conducive to using these attention skills. This is the kind of language and awareness of attention we need, and we need to be thinking about what kind of lives we're leading. It's not just the technologies; it's the hurry and bustle that blurs what's going on in our lives; it's our inability to see distraction as defined by being pulled to something secondary. There's the entertainment that's hard to say no to. There's also fragmentation, which is the dismantling of the whole moment of presence before an intellectual problem or before a person. So there are many different aspects to attention, and again, we need to be aware. That's the most important thing.

So you're exposing ironies here: imagining on one hand that we have more knowledge than ever before’that is, anybody who has Internet access’yet we're not thinking as deeply. We have more "friends" than we've ever had via Facebook, yet fewer real deep lasting commitments.
Yes, in many ways we're living in abundance. We are drowning in oceans of data, but are unable to turn that into knowledge. We have so much connectivity that the connections we're making are thinner and more diffused. Research study after research study backs up my assertions right there. The number of close confidantes that Americans have has fallen in the last twenty years. The lonely American is not just a fallacy; it's true. So, yes, the irony is this great abundance and it's all a matter of drawing boundaries, which is what a person's focus does. It's a matter of prioritization, which is what executive attention does: What am I doing at this moment, and am I really doing it well? And what do I want to be doing Thursday? Look up from the screen and be in charge of your life. That's partly what attention does.

I have increasing faith that this can be tackled. I see a backlash to the technology that involves people choosing not to be on Facebook or not to have a cell phone. Certainly there are people who believe you need to be on it all the time, and that's the way to go; but I think there are ripples of change with many who want that close family time and closer relations with others. There is a tremendous amount of consideration about the need for critical thinking in our education system. We've gone far beyond thinking, "Oh, it's just a matter of turning it off," to now thinking, "How do we actually, in a smart way, handle all of this, and yet still make use of it?"

I think we're at a critical crossroad. We're not just dealing with the telephone or the fax anymore. We're dealing with a wholesale usurpation of our lives by technology and its impacts, so we have to get even smarter in how we're dealing with it individually and collectively.

One of the most interesting studies I've seen on multitasking shows that when you're multitasking, yes, you are learning. However, we need to digest information in order to make it our own, to learn it well, interpret it, and therefore be able to transfer it to other situations. When you're multitasking, you're using parts of your brain related to automatic behavior. So that means kids cramming for a test are learning and can spit it out the next day, and maybe get an A. But they are not learning that information in a way that goes into their deeper memory. Therefore, they can't transfer that information into new situations’they've lost it. It's surface learning. That transference is at the heart of creating wisdom. So the cumulative effect of multitasking your way through your homework is astonishingly dangerous. The same goes with our own adult lifestyles.

You write that storing facts into our long-term memory requires "cognitive work that can take days and even months to accomplish," and that this requires rote repetition. If we're not going to really invest ourselves in anything that can't be "netted out," that can't be skimmed, then we're going to miss quite a bit that's good, true, and beautiful in the world, aren't we?
Yes, exactly. We'll also miss out on what's immeasurable’the things that can't be stored or measured through data. We'll miss out on the sensory beauty of the landscape in front of us’the garden or your own child. We'll miss out on even being in touch with our own thoughts, because when we pump so much information, music, and media into our brains at all times, when we're living to a kind of sound track that we're not creating, we're not in touch with our inner lives and our inner thoughts. That's really frightening. I went down to the University of Maryland, where students were assigned a digital detox for 24 hours’that is, they couldn't access media. One word I came away with after talking with dozens of students was "fear." They were terrified of being alone with themselves.That was very chilling for me.

Do we need to recover what earlier generations called "growing up"? Basically, discipline in our lives where we realize that although some things may not seem exciting to us at the moment, there are lots of things that are valuable that can't be digitized or downloaded.
Yes, I think that's very important. The style of thinking and living we have when we're attached to media all the time leads to an undermining world of instant gratification, instant information, instant shopping, instant everything. Self-control really is a muscle. The latest research shows that it's a form of energy that can be depleted. When you're not practicing the craft of tenacity or patience, for example, you're not able to get below the surface of things. In past ages, there was rigidity about discipline that now makes us run the other way. We want a boundary-free world of instantaneous everything; we don't want to sit and wait for anything. But this is a critical skill to keep. So often, we talk about sifting through the cost benefits. We keep, adapt, and adopt new things, and yet we throw away what doesn't work. I don't want to be seen as someone who wants to go back to the past; I exult in technological wonders, and I'm glad technology makes education and information accessible to others. However, we might just be creating a new form of ignorance, not based on lack of information, but based on lack of willingness or ability to access that information in a deeper way. So I think that discipline and self-control are intentional skills related to attention.

Toward the conclusion of your book, you write, "A renaissance of attention may be at hand: an antidote to our epidemic of distraction lies in a set of astonishing discoveries. Attention can be understood, strengthened and taught." In the time since you wrote this statement, do you think the problem is getting worse, or are we on the road to some kind of recovery? In other words, are we heading to a new Dark Age or to a renaissance?
I think the jury is still out. I'm heartened by some willingness to question how we're living: a yearning and a hunger for depth, for face time, and for attention in life. That doesn't mean we'll be able to translate this into true action. I think we have a long way to go. There are still many people who believe that efficiency and a hurried, multitasking way of life are productive. In terms of a potential renaissance, we have to realize that attention, like many other things, is a value system. When we look at the executive running past us, head down on the BlackBerry, barely listening to anyone around him, and we think that here is a successful person in life’that's a value system we should question. When we think about the kid with the first hand up in the classroom, "Me, me, me, call on me!"’that's the smart kid, not the kid who's listening thoughtfully. When we assume that time spent thinking is mere idleness, then these are value systems we need to question.

Wednesday, May 1st 2013

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