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Book Review: Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson

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All in all, we’d be a lot better off if we left the cultural soothsaying to people who are trained to do so. If it’s the academic’s job to identify and predict social trends, it’s the journalist’s job to display how those trends affect individuals on the personal level. Distacted, Boston Globe columnist Maggie Jackson’s screed against the A.D.D. generation, runs into all the problems you’d expect when a journalist tries to play sociologist. Jackson’s supporting evidence is overwhelmed with anecdotal and introspective evidence. She overemphasizes points that marginally support her argument and ignores all evidence to the contrary. Her use of academic theory is flimsy and oversimplifying. It’s clear that Jackson went into Distracted to make a prescriptive argument, rather than try to discover whether that argument was valid.

The argument Jackson tries to make is one we have heard all before. The Internet, in its fragmented text and its natural inclination to make us multitask, has caused us to turn away from more serious, informed research. We no longer want to read the sacred, magical book, but would rather get our texts through websites and readable in under 30 seconds. She combines this with a reduction in family time, the loss of trust, and the rise of humanoid robots as a sign of an impending dark age. In a book meaning to pander to grandparents and frustrated conservative mothers, Jackson stops short of referring to “The Google” and “The Youtubes,” but she may as well have gone that far. Something tells me she didn’t promote Distracted on Twitter.

A cruel irony of Distracted is that Jackson’s writing style violates the larger points she is trying to defend. Jackson can’t stay on one topic for more than a couple of pages, constantly going off on tangents and non-sequiturs before fully fleshing out her arguments. As a result, her argument borders on incoherence. There’s little to no connection from one anecdote to another. Each chapter serves more as a collection of vaguely related trains of thought instead of building the disciplined informed approach Jackson seems to be advocating. In fact, the struggle to follow Jackson’s line of reasoning actually makes her point better than anything she writes in the book. But Distracted is not a smart enough book for that effect to be intentional.

At least in the book’s introduction, Jackson makes her argument clear: with the eroding of attention and human dedication to detail and nuance, we could be heading for another dark ages. The definition of “dark ages” is extremely loosey-goosey and probably more historically normative than any academic would prefer – but hey! It sells.  To be fair, in her explanation she does make the correct observation that technical advancement is not equivalent to intellectual Enlightenment.

At a swift 327 pages with footnotes, it seems like there are sections of Distracted that got left out of the book. For one, Jackson spends no time addressing how the rise of unprecedented access to information has actually helped the advancement of knowledge. People now have access to information that years ago would be impossible, however fragmented. Jackson also makes a case that computer files and hard drives wear out, and that information could be lost on a scale of Alexandria. She doesn’t realize that the ability to communicate, transfer, and copy information has never been stronger.

But perhaps the most glaring omission in a book full of the social effects of A.D.D. culture is a section on the political effects of such a development. One chapter of the book lazily applies Michel Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon as an explanation of the erosion of trust in society. Not only is that reasoning (considering more access to information actually builds trust), but she also brazenly skips over the ability of politics to manipulate and distort knowledge to whatever it pleases, no matter how inaccurate. The politics of manipulation is a topic that would not pander to Jackson’s core audience, which perhaps explains why she skipped it over. How could a mother who seriously believes the chain email she received about Obama being a secret Muslim be told that she’s been manipulated by a power structure?

Of course, no one wants to hear that the dark ages are coming, so Jackson provides a means of hope: to instill rigorous attentional training in youths to keep us from getting distracted, through hard work and gumption. Never mind that A.D.D. is a clinically recognized condition, or that the current American public school system can barely train grade school students to read, let alone pay attention. Jackson, who wants to return humanity to its attentional origins, may seriously have her heart in the right place. But she ends up sounding like every grandparent who has ever lived, one who’s nostalgic for the less foolhardy days of his or her own youth. For all the psychology Jackson has read, she has obviously not read much political psychology.

Distracted has the problem of going up against Nicholas Carr’s much more intelligently and responsibly argument of the same point in last month's Atlantic Monthly. She also has published the book in an election season where the Internet has played a crucial role, and where the less technically adept campaigns have been left in the dust. We shouldn’t blame Jackson for failing to see things more progressively. Society has changed, for good or for bad, just as it always has. Jackson is only human.

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About Ethan Stanislawski