Maggie Jackson – Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

July 11, 2008

Maggie Jackson 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. Her newest book is Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Maggie Jackson discusses her controversial thesis about the downsides of the information age, and how the distractions from modern technologies lead to less critical thinking and less fulfilled lives. She explores the causes and effects of the erosion of attention, including media culture, the internet and personal communication devices, and even our fast-food culture, and how these impact relationships, work and personal identity. She details some advances in “attention science,” a field in cognitive neuroscience, and what they tell us about how people can overcome their distractions. And she shares what listeners can do to stop the erosion of attention in their lives.

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This is Point of Inquiry for Friday, July 11th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Maggie Jackson, here’s a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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We love having smart and provocative guests on the show, so it’s a pleasure to have Maggie Jackson on. She’s an award winning author and journalist who writes the Balancing Acts column in the Boston Globe. She’s been published widely and has appeared on National Public Radio and in The New York Times. Her acclaimed first book is What’s Happening to Home Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age. She joins me on point of inquiry to talk about her new book, Distracted the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. One of the most interesting books I’ve read in while Maggie Jackson welcomed a point of inquiry. 

Happy to be here today, innocence. 

Maggie, your book is about the downside of the information age when more knowledge is at our fingertips than ever before. You’re suggesting that all this knowledge, this flood of knowledge is actually bad for us because it keeps us from being able to really focus on anything, from being able to think critically about stuff. 

Well, I’m suggesting that we’re not using our technological gadgets as wisely as we could. I’m certainly not saying that technology is bad. We certainly don’t want to go backwards in many ways. I mean, the floods of information that we have, the access to information, the new visual imagery that enriches our lives. You know, these are all wonderful points of progress. But I am thinking that we need to be more skeptical about, you know, not only just what technology has brought us, but what our new hyper mobile split, focused and kind of overloaded, speed driven lives are giving us. 

So you don’t want to go back to the days before 24 hour news or Internet or cell phones or Blackberries and iPhones. They’re kind of the culprit in your book. A number of places. 

Absolutely. Well, I think that, you know, there’s a question of degree. You know, a little bit of 24 hour news is one thing, a study. 23 hours out of 24 hour day diet of this or or, you know, TV in the background of children’s lives to the extent that they can’t pay attention or that they have attentional difficulties. I mean, these are signs that we are off balance, that we’re off kilter, and that we need to firstly value deeper types of thought and relationships. I think we’re now prioritizing and we’re living dominantly lives that are, you know, made up of snippets, glimpses, soundbites. And so I think that it’s a matter of being off kilter and heading in the wrong direction. 

So it’s not the volume of the knowledge. You’re not anti knowledge or anti this flood of knowledge. It’s just how we’re dealing with it. You think people are losing the ability to think deeply about things? Because in our culture, we tend to praise these days anyway, thinking a little bit about a lot of things rather than deeply about any one thing. And technology really is the culprit there. Right? On the one hand, my iPhone, my iPod, my laptop, they all make me more productive. Actually, I think in my case, a little more educated. I can watch lectures and listen to books even on the go, like I never could before. But answering emails and surfing news sites and forums all day long you’re seeing actually keeps people from digging into any one important idea or thought. 

Well, it often does. Yes. And again, technology is not in and of itself the culprit. Technology is part of our lives. It’s a we bring to technology certain values and technologies even sort of tell a story. 

Know look at the movie, new movie Wally and the place of technology in our lives and the future that depicts. But I think that we can do better. You know, at the office, research now shows that workers switch tasks on average every three minutes, all day long. Work fragmentation doesn’t leave a lot of room for deep, critical thinking. 

And often they’re the ones distracting themselves. It’s not that something comes in from the outside. 

Precisely half the time they’re interrupting themselves and hopscotching around. And I think that we value movement and we’ve now gotten to the place where pause, stillness, thinking is quiet. 

Time is really seen as a kind of sign of weakness in our society. 

So you think people are more distracted today than, say, before the Internet? The TV, the radio before might have been pretty distracting for everyday folks. 

Certainly. But the climate that we inhabit is so noisy, so cluttered and so fragmented. And really the bottom line, my book is about attention. What is attention? You know, what kinds of attention do we need in the 21st century? Attention is the keystone, the building blocks to wisdom, knowledge, making memory in happiness. Element of consciousness and so on. We’re now living life. That fragment undermine and don’t. Now us to have the kind of deeper, higher, you know, the highest forms of attention. That’s what we’re undermining. 

So because society’s all distracting us, keeping us from paying attention to the important things in your life, you don’t seem to, in the book be arguing that we should be paying more attention to X, Y or Z. You’re just saying pay more attention to things in general? Well, since society is kind of forcing us to be distracted, you’re kind of saying it’s leading to people not living fully fleshed out lives. 

Well, exactly. I mean, we’re so detached from our physicality. We depend on breathless, portable car culture types of food. I mean, that really is the American food market into a great degree. And both of, you know, movements toward slow food or kind of organic culture, you know, the predominant you know, where we eat is on the run. And that’s a route that signals a real detachment right there. You know, again, we live life of hyper split focus so that it’s rare and an office meeting to get people who actually people the attention to the speaker. And in that case, you’re really, you know, losing an opportunity for the meeting of minds that are gathering really is supposed to be, you know, and the lives of split focus also undermine relationships, family, life, etc.. 

That’s one paradox that you address in your book. I found really interesting. People are more connected today than ever before because of things like email, the Internet, social networking sites. I know more people now than I would have before the Internet. But you argue that this has actually led to more isolation because the more people we know, the fewer people we know really well. So we’re kind of cut off from deeper ways of connecting to people. 

Yes. I mean, I think that there is an argument to be made that amidst the connectivity, the sort of activity on steroids that we have now, there’s no doubt that we now can connect with millions around the globe and that are number of people in our social networks has grown. One sociologist, Danah Boyd, looks through the five year e-mail archive of someone named Mike and found that he had eleven point seven million ties to people in the world. And we don’t really think about it, but that’s the connectivity soup that we live in. And yet, at the same time, 25 percent of Americans say they have no close consonant. We know we’re a nation that doesn’t know our neighbors. Now, part of this is just natural. It’s a bigger, more complex, urbanized, anonymous global world. These are trade off. Absolutely. But I do think that, you know, when we do have trouble so often connecting with the people who are most meaningful to us and maybe when the, you know, the sense of social isolation is growing, we do have to rethink these kind of disused faceless communications are doing to our relationship. The jury’s still out. But I’m saying, well, let’s take a sharper, closer look at some of these trade off. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Distracted the erosion of attention in the coming Dark Age through our website point of inquiry dot org. 

Maggie, one of the biggest bruss of your book is how all this distraction going on in our society is actually keeping people from thinking straight. You see it as undermining critical thinking and reasoning skills. So it’s not just that we’re bouncing around from subject to subject. We’re actually kind of getting dumber in the process. 

Yes, that certainly looks like the case. Again, it’s difficult to draw a straight line, but I think the signs are all around us at the moment. We’re not progressing in terms of critical thinking skills. One major measure of college students found that critical thinking skills have declined. American 15 year olds ranked very poor on ECD levels of problem solving of 21st century skill again at the workplace. A third of workers say they have no time to reflect on the work that they do because they’re so busy or so highly interrupted. So we’re squandering our time for that. You know, thinking takes time and thinking takes cognitive wrestling, wrestling with texts, wrestling with problem solving, its kind of architectural process. I think we’re squeezing that out of our lives. And there’s no study or I’m not arguing that, hey, Pete is making us dumber or cetera, et cetera. But there’s a difference between being ignorant because you lack access to knowledge and being ignorant because you’re unwilling or unable to get into or go deeply into the knowledge that surrounds us. The information that surrounds us, we need to really think carefully about how we can teach skills of knowledge making and what is crucial to all of this. A. 

Yeah, that’s the biggest paradox of the information age, it’s easier now to learn than ever before. But in a sense, it’s harder because there’s kind of more channels coming at you, keeping you from delving into anyone subject. There are these companies like teaching company or all these audio books you can get or, you know, the local public library. Right. It’s it’s so much easier now than any other time in history to learn freely, to learn. But on the other hand, it’s so much harder because so much is coming out. 

Yeah, sure. And there’s a wonderful professor at Rutgers, Carroll Coal Power, who’s done a tremendous body of work on research, how people research. She studies students and workers and all sorts of people. And there’s, you know, the thought process of research itself is little known. 

It involves a lot of discomfort, a lot of exploration. And finally, the pivot point is focus. Attention is key and crucial. And when we live in this distracted society with no time to fully focus on anything, we are not doing the kind of thinking and researching that we could be. 

Maggie, tell me the difference between thinking like we’re talking about and what you call mic thinking. 

Well, I think thinking critical thinking skills are, you know, little understood in some ways. They depend on, you know, first of all, willpower, the will to push yourself beyond just the surface, to come to grips with the discomfort of doubting yourself, doubting what? You know, relativism or naïve ignorance is a lot easier. Well, I think politically and socially and culturally, we see a lot of that in our society now. You know, maybe you’re not willing. Maybe we just don’t have the time or the ability to sit down and handle the discomfort of thinking deeply. So the mix thinking we’re doing that, you know, depending what first up on Google, et cetera. A national study of college students found that half couldn’t determine the objectivity of a Web site. This is a technological needs, and that’s the point. I think it’s very important to make. 

We, I think, are mistaking technological savvy ness, which is often mechanical but can be very creative. The fluency with the tools that we have for mistaking that knowledge with real sensemaking knowledge making, there might not be always the same thing. 

What undergirds your book and every chapter really is your focus on this burgeoning field of attention, science, kind of cognitive neuroscientists getting together and studying what it means to pay attention, what it means for the brain to be able to focus. 

Yes. And that is a fascinating and little known area of medical and scientific research. I don’t think the wider public is aware that, first of all, we don’t really think about attention. We know what it’s like to focus deeply. We know what it feels like to be aware of beautiful garden. But actually, the definition pertaining to the workings of attention has been a mystery to science for generations. And now, with neuro imaging and genetic testing and other sort of new technologies, we’re beginning to understand how attention works. And it’s extremely important going forward. In a world of of overload and technology and complexity and speed that we understand how to manage and harness and drive forward our attention. Attention is not just one thing. It’s a set of skills. It’s compared to an organ system like our circulatory or digestive systems. There’s three kinds. It’s generally considered now that there are three kinds of focus awareness and then executive attention, which are a lot of planning and decision making skills, a higher order, you know, prefrontal cortex kind of skills. There’s a fascinating body of research that hasn’t made it into the schools, hasn’t made it to parents or to, you know, knowledge workers even. And we need to tap into this. 

And so your book is a step in that direction. Do you think that this knowledge base coming out of the cognitive neurosciences, is it is it making an impact in combating this culture of distraction? 

Well, not yet. I mean, all of this is very new. But there is work going on, I think, which is very exciting on simply the training of attention itself. Now, some neuroscientists are studying meditators who are doing their offer, the different types of meditation. 

Right. Like in Buddhism, there’s what they call mindfulness. 

And exactly I mean, there are different types of attention being trained and thinking in meditation, training or awareness. Your focus focus is kind of a spotlight of your mind. So when you’re meditating, often you’re training the spotlight of your mind to kind of be in control of that spotlight of focus. And then a renowned neuroscientist, Michael Posner of the University of Oregon, has done computer based work training children on a pension. Using all that he’s learned about how attention develops and children and how it work. So we’re not sure how long lasting these gains are or exactly how best to train attention, but we’re beginning to get evidence that it can be done. In fact, Michael Posner is calling for the training of attention in preschool when kids could train their focus to be the building block of their learning experience. It’s very exciting. 

And you kind of connect that to all the research done 30 years ago about exploring children’s ability to defer gratification. That that process. That ability to be self disciplined. It really ties in with the ability to focus to pay attention. 

Yes. And and the research isn’t 30 years old. It’s actually a body of work that’s 30 years long. You know, there’s an astonishing body of work in and around what some people call self-control, willpower. Well, really, the fuel behind self-control and willpower self-regulation is sometimes called is attention, because you need to, again, swivel your attention to something that isn’t tempting. Just for instance. A fascinating series of experiments by Walter Michel Columbia. Leo Schmeling’s placed at the most famous psychological experiments of all time place four year olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they could hold out until the researcher came back, they could get two marshmallows. Those who held out had better S.A.T. scores were more resilient, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. I mean, that doesn’t mean it’s all over for us at four years old at all. It’s a developing set of skills, the network of attention that underscore just about everything we do as humans. Because attention is central to how you stay attuned to your environment, reacting to what’s new. And that’s why we interrupt driven. But it’s also central to how we pursue our goals. There couldn’t be anything more important as a human being in this world. And here we are, fragmenting it and undermining it. And just sort of not even thinking about it. 

Maggie, the subtitle of your book, It’s About The Coming Dark Age, is due to this erosion of attention you’re pointing out. Do you really see everything falling apart because people are forced by society to be so surface level and inattentive to important things? 

Well, I think collectively and individually we will pay very steep costs for continually to live in this way in the. Climate of perfection. If we nurture this type of living. But at the same time, you know, one of the surprises of my research, when I look back at turning points of civilization, not just the medieval times, you know, the sort of uber idea of a dark ed, but Greek dark age, you know, in China and all sorts of different turning points in civilization. They’re not necessarily all negative time. 

And we’re still learning going on in the dark ages. 

There was learning going on. And often they were highly technological times. So, as the index says, a dark age is not a collection of subtractions. And yet it’s a time of gradual cultural decline, a time of slipping and a time of forgetting, you know, a time when people don’t pay attention to the past, when they can’t see ahead collectively to meet the challenges of their day. 

And you see that happening because of this culture of distraction. 

I think that we can’t progress as a high tech and yet caring and thoughtful society if we continue to nurture a culture of distraction. Yes. 

So specifically, Matthew, what should a listener do to stop this erosion of attention in her life? Is it just about stopping multitasking or there’s some bigger upheavals in in your workaday world? You should you should adopt? 

Sure. Well, that’s a great question. And it’s not just about multitasking. It’s not just about turning off the TV in the background of life. It’s not just about, you know, throwing those Blackberries in the fire. No, of course, we want to use our gadgets and our technologies and are rich media. But at the same time, there is much that we can do. And I’d like to see us spark and work toward a renaissance of attention. I think it’s almost an environmental problem. Well, for instance, I just a little anecdote. I was in the Minneapolis airport. I went to a business lounge to do a little work, and I looked and looked for a quiet corner. The only two rooms and that huge business lounge that were labeled quiet rooms were the ones where the TV was blaring. So that in our society tells us a lot about what constitutes quiet space and just being aware of what attention is and how we can better utilize our skills of attention really gives us ammunition in this new age. Now we can teach our kids about what it’s like to focus. We can role model focus both for each other and for our children. You know, give each other split focus all the time, saying to the other, you’re not really worth all of my attention or my time. So speaking of vocabulary attention, bringing this into the school, that’s a starting point. And then nurturing our own inner resources and nurturing our attention skills. Know, it’s just not sort of laying back and deciding that the perfect climate to wrestle with problem solving is scattered, distracted and on the run. You know that there’s something that we can change in. 

Might there also be technological solutions to this culture of distraction? I might de-escalate my little handheld video game has games that you could play on that kind of teach you focus. 

Sure. You know, there are efforts going on in some of the most advanced research labs around the country, Microsoft, IBM, to actually create Chinnery that will help us be less interrupted or be better interrupted in the workplace. So there’s a positive possibilities there. And then, as I mentioned, there are computer games, while they wouldn’t call them games, but there are computer exercises developed by scientists to teach children focus, even kids with ADHD. So, yes, used wisely and cautiously. I think our machinery can help us better pay attention, but we can’t hand over the responsibility for this to the machine. We have to take full responsibility ourselves to nurturing our focus. You know, speaking a language of focus and attention, learning about attention and, you know, work side by side, so to speak, with our machinery to create, as I mentioned, a high tech society that’s also caring, human centered and progressive on all the ways we’d like. You know, we can define society as we like. But not when we are just living a climate of ceaseless detachment, fragmentation and distraction. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Maggie Jackson. Oh, thanks. Dieter. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.