Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age

By Maggie Jackson, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2008, 327 pages ISBN 978-1-59102-623-5, $18 paperback

Reviewed by Frank Lock

This book is in the same vein as Mark Bauerlein's 1999 The Dumbest Generation, which investigated why today's younger generation seems less informed and literate while being more self-absorbed than generations which preceded it. Jackson, a journalist, opens her book with a description of her own natural tendency toward distraction, concluding the first chapter with the notion that "an epidemic erosion of attention is a sure sign of an impending dark age."

Jackson's research for the book included spending time at the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory. She learned a great deal from experimental psychologist David Meyer, whose work involves research on multitasking. Meyer is driven to inform anyone who will listen about the dangers of multitasking. His research indicates that people can train to improve their ability to multitask, "But except in rare circumstances, you can train until you're blue in the face and you'd never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time." Meyers began concentrating his research on multitasking after his son was killed by a distracted driver in a traffic accident. Jackson explains that Meyer "is convinced that (multitasking) exemplifies a head-down, tunnel vision way of life that values materialism over happiness, productivity over insight and compassion."

In a chapter on bound books, the author indicates that although 174,000 books were published in one recent year, nearly 57 percent of Americans don't read a single book in a year. This reviewer can't imagine going a week, let alone a year, without reading a book. Despite this dearth of book reading, Jackson asks, "Can we Google our way to wisdom?" She includes an insightful quote from former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin: "The greatest menace to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge." Information obtained from Google has the potential to create an illusion of knowledge.

Jackson describes innovative uses of technology in education, including an experiment in such technology by Professor Norbert Elliot at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Elliot eliminated lectures and instead assigned students to listen to podcasts of his lectures. He suspected that few students would actually view or listen to the podcasts, and that the few who did would be "usually multitasking or running about while doing so." Jackson indicates that the podcast technology did indeed reduce learning because of student multitasking. A similar recent innovation in high school science courses is called "flipping," where teachers prepare videos for students to watch outside of class. Students are then expected to pursue the topics in more depth in class. Based on the evidence in Distracted, I'd venture that high school students are more prone to multitask while watching the videos than are college students.

Jackson's theory is that students fall short of their intellectual potential due to their failure to exercise self-discipline. She suspects that the control of attention is the driver behind willpower, writing "Here again we see how attention is the conductor of the orchestra of you…." She quotes psychiatry professor Leanne Tamm: "Kids are always told to pay attention, but they don't know what that means."

Her concluding paragraph opens with a challenge to our culture: "We are on the cusp of an astonishing time, and on the edge of darkness." I found the book stimulating and insightful, and was impressed with the author's depth of research. I recommend it to everyone who is interested in the effects of technology on our culture.

Frank Lock
retired physics teacher
Gainesville, GA

These contributions have not been peer-reviewed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.