Review by Mary Rose MacDonald
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, released in 2008, laments a societal loss of “attention” in the information age. Interpersonal relationships are increasingly impersonal between people tethered to their Blackberrys, iPods, PDAs, cell phones, etc. Author Maggie Johnson warns of a “Coming Dark Age” wherein “we are plunging into a culture of mistrust, skimming, and a perilous melding of man and machine.”
Ten years later, the second edition is enjoying an updated title, Distracted: Reclaiming Our Focus in a World of Lost Attention. Her language of reclamation and revolution, a taking back of “what one app developer calls our ‘cognitive liberty,’” is refreshing as she cites recent public outcry over mass data breaches, and of popular endeavors to “detox” from devices and digital living. She cultivates a new sense of agency. Dark Age or not, we can constructively grapple with the challenges of the frenetic technological age.
Johnson’s account of her traversal through “the land of distraction” is mostly unchanged, though. She should be congratulated for her accessible references to theorists like William James, Zygmunt Bauman, and Walter Benjamin. These broad theoretical strokes are balanced by her work with neuroscientists and psychologists as she gets down to the science of attention as an “organ system.” Without becoming tedious, she explores developments in attention deficit research, neuroplasticity, cognitive development, and advances in artificial intelligence. She recognizes that the crisis of inattention is rooted in a culture demanding unanchored mobility, consumers’ changing perceptions of time and space at the ground level. Ultimately, her interdisciplinary exploration is held together by observations of human experience as we try to navigate the digital everyday.
Having witnessed large-scale social and cultural eruptions catalyzed by the hyperconnectivity of social media (think the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, #MeToo) since 2008, I wonder whether her discourse doesn’t unfold within a vacuum only relevant to an economically privileged few, isolated from a more complex and intertwined social reality. She doesn’t sufficiently stretch her thesis in either edition toward some of urgent social and political developments that have occurred in her so-called climate of distraction.
Her driving anecdotal narrative is limited to scenarios of distracted students in university libraries, of families trying to put their phones down long enough to have dinner together, finding the right food to eat in the car, checking email while trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance. These moments are relatable, but speak to a uniformly middle-class microcosm wherein everyone enjoys access to a unique brand of consumer freedom.
For example, in the education sector, Johnson interviews professors and librarians complaining about “skimming” as common practice among distracted students incapable of close reading, and critical thought, despite being very proficient in online literacy. Could this trend not also be attributed to a larger social crisis in education? In the United States, access to higher education is another type of consumer freedom, and it is complicated by widespread but selective cuts to funding in resources at the K-12 level to which all children are supposed to be entitled. Her language of progress and revolution misses the mark insofar as it does not recognize that the information age exists in a complex network of power of which iPhones are just one part.
Her call for change is something to be admired, certainly. One of her anecdotes really struck a chord with me. Recalling a talk she gave in a crowded library:
A hand shot up from the audience when I was done. “This revolution that you’re starting . . .,” began a woman in the front row. I no longer recall the rest of her question nor my startled response. But over the years I have often thought about her conviction.
That’s more or less how I feel about this book.
The Furious Gazelle received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.