Is Distraction In Our Consumerist Culture Leading to a “Dark Age”

Maggie Jackson implies a bleak scenario in her new book Distracted.   Its subtitle (The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age)  implies that our technological distractions are leading to a shallowness and loss of vital elements of our culture and education.  (However, it must be noted that not everyone agrees with this point of view.  For example, this blogger “Vaughan” feels that non-technological socities had a much larger array of significant distractions than the ones we face today.)

Here’s an excerpt from a Wired interview with Maggie:

We are programmed to be interrupted. We get an adrenalin jolt when orienting to new stimuli: Our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it’s easy and tempting to always react to the new thing. But when we live in a reactive way, we minimize our capacity to pursue goals.

Wired.com: What does it mean to be distracted?

Jackson: Literally, it means to be pulled away to something secondary. There’s also an a interesting, archaic definition that fell out of favor in the 18th century: being pulled to pieces, being scattered. I think that’s a lovely term.

Our society right now is filled with lovely distractions — we have so much portable escapism and mediated fantasy — but that’s just one issue. The other is interruption — multitasking, the fragmentation of thought and time. We’re living in highly interrupted ways. Studies show that information workers now switch tasks an average of every three minutes throughout the day. Of course that’s what we have to do to live in this complicated world.

Wired.com: How do these interruptions affect us?

Jackson: This degree of interruption is correlated with stress and frustration and lowered creativity. That makes sense. When you’re scattered and diffuse, you’re less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it’s hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.

These are the problems of attention in our new world. Gadgets and technologies give us extraordinary opportunities, the potential to connect and to learn. At the same time, we’ve created a culture, and are making choices, that undermine our powers of attention.

The other important thing is to discuss interruption as an environmental question and collective social issue. In our country, stillness and reflection are not especially valued in the workplace. The image of success is the frenetic multitasker who doesn’t have time and is constantly interrupted. By striving towards this model of inattention, we’re doing ourselves a tremendous injustice.

Wired.com: The subtitle of your book predicts a “coming dark age.” Do you really believe this?

Jackson: Dark ages are times of forgetting, when the advancements of the past are underutilized. If we forget how to use our powers of deep focus, we’ll depend more on black-and-white thinking, on surface ideas, on surface relationships. That breeds a tremendous potential for tyranny and misunderstanding. The possibility of an attention-deficient future society is very sobering.

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