If you’re a fan of epic subtitles, how does “The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” strike you? In her book Distracted, author Maggie Jackson investigates how our rapidly shifting cultural orientation to information and decrease in attention could portend the beginnings of a new depression of culture, critical thinking, and standard of living.
Jackson’s idea has some strengths. She did a good job of pointing out that in historical eras later termed “dark ages” people often didn’t know they were in them or didn’t feel an abrupt shift (it’s not like suddenly the lights went out). Jackson reminds us that the European Middle Ages and the Greek Dark Ages were defined by great technological gains, but that those were offset but a general decline in civilization and “a desertlike spell of collective forgetting.” Dark ages are more like a “period of flux” than a sudden plummet.
I thought she could have done a stronger job of analyzing commonalities of “Dark Ages” in the past and viewing current realities in light of those common factors. Instead, Jackson’s thesis is that widespread declines in focus and attention are both caused by and feeding our culture of information overload, our inability to sift, synthesize, and analyze that information, and focus on deep thinking about problems we face as individuals and collectively. I think she is correct on that score, but the surface treatment of the dark ages thing felt gimmicky.
The balance of the book meanders through various aspects of attention, citing current research about how we pay attention, what attention means, how attention is a better indicator of success than IQ, and how multitasking is actually an inefficient and harmful way to approach life even though people don’t recognize it as such–“akin to cigarette smoking a generation ago.” There is a lot of valuable and helpful information here.
When it comes to solutions, Jackson seems to lack much historical context. She gets excited about the “astonishing discovery” that attention can be taught and strengthened, even in children, which will not surprise Charlotte Mason fans in the slightest. Furthermore, she finds that we can even manage our very thoughts (breaking news from 2 Corinthians 10!).
I did find it interesting that Jackson points out worship as an attention builder, since “attention during worship is multi-layered, involving a focus on the words of the service, their literal and inward meanings, and the ongoing ritual.” Other attention-building activities will likely strike you as obvious, such as playing word games, spending focused time, limiting screen time, etc.
Overall, I thought Distracted was a worthwhile book to read, because I’m interested in attention as a habit I work on personally and try to work on with my children. I found my conviction about the importance of attention, memory, and limiting technology strengthened by the research Jackson cites, and appreciated the reminders to prioritize focus, deep connections, and critical thinking. I wish that the book had delivered a bit better on the idea of the coming dark age, that it had been more tightly organized, and that the conclusions/prescriptions had been more detailed and informed, but I’m still glad that I read it.
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