Friday, February 24, 2012


I just finished a book today, Distracted, by Maggie Jackson. I want to say it was a good book. It was very well thought out and articulately written.

But it was also troubling.

It focuses on our lack of attention in everyday situations, especially when technology gets involved in our lives. How that technology fools us into thinking we are "multitasking" when in reality we are retraining our brains to stop focusing on one thing and instead buzz about trying to give attention to three, four, five things.

"Depending too heavily on multitasking to navigate a complex environment and on technology as our guide carries a final risk: the derailing of the painstaking work of adding to our storehouses of knowledge. That's because anything that we want to learn must be ordered into our long-term memory stores, cognitive work that can take days and even months to accomplish. Attention helps us understand and make sense of the world and is crucial as a first step to creating memory...Building these stores of memory takes time and will. When we divide our attention while trying to encode or retrieve memories, we do so about as well as if we were drunk or sleep deprived."


It's about how that lack of attention is leading to a society of shallow "sound bite" kinds of people. People who don't have time to pay attention. Or rather, don't take time to pay attention.

"Grazing, browsing, surfing, hoteling, hot-desking, travel-soccer, dashboard dining - the very vocabulary of our daily lives denotes an adoration of motion. We scorn the idea of stopping, equating the local and the immobile with "social deprivation and degradation" writes sociologist Zygmunt Bauman....A culture of constant movement, in part fueled by a love of instant gratification, cannot bear the mystery and unpredictability inherent in the idea of pause. "For the sake of speed, in the interest of not wasting time, we sacrifice the sensuous richness of the not-yet," writes Noelle Oxenhandler in her essay "The Lost While." We live in a culture of "becoming" but never arriving."
Perhaps because I work as a librarian, I found the following story distressing.

"Geoffrey Nunberg was shocked to see that the "highly sophisticated" grad students he was teaching at Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems had difficulty evaluating simple, unfamiliar information on the Web. A librarian converted English professor Lorie Roth to the cause by showing her printouts of student searches culled from the garbage. "As I sat there, surrounded by the detritus from the trash cans, paging through these print-outs, I tried to reconstruct what kind of thought processes these students were using," says Roth, now vice chancellor of the massive California Statue University system. "I finally arrived at the conclusion, in fact, there was no process; that there was no logical, clear, systematic inquiry."


"Study after study at top and lesser schools reveal similar conclusions: students-including seniors- "display a particularly narrow field of vision" in searching, use "quick and dirty" ways of finishing the task, "often opt for convenience over quality," and give up easily. To find the borders of the former Yugoslavia, 35 percent of four hundred and fifty undergrads at UCLA said they'd consult the Atlas of American History or the Encyclopedia of Associations."

I have to repeat that. To find the borders of the former Yugoslavia, one in three students said they'd look in the Atlas of American History or the Encyclopedia of Associations

"If you want to have an educated citizenry, you've got to wrestle with complex ideas,... said Elliot, "or you will end up with people who will only do the shallowest things."

Wrestle with complex ideas when they can't find the borders of Yugoslavia?

How did we let this happen? 

"Heads down, we are allowing ourselves to be ever-more entranced by the unsifted trivia of life. With splintered focus, we're cultivating a culture of distraction and detachment. We are eroding attention - the  most crucial building block of wisdom, memory, and ultimately the key to societal progress."


She ends the book on a positive note. We can reverse this "skimming" through life. And learn to make paying attention a priority.

Teachers are working with families, training them to show younger kids, ages three through seven, how to pay attention by getting them to reconnect over block stacking, card matching, and word games that bolster attention and memory.

"Kids are always told to pay attention, but they don't know what that means...One of the most critical elements is giving them a common language for what it means to pay attention." A language of attention. Only when we speak this language can we bestow on others the irreplaceable gift of our attention."

And she's right. Attention is a gift.

When I'm talking with a friend, or one of my children, I don't want them checking their phone every few moments. Or plugged in to their iPods. 

When they do that, they're telling me I'm not important. Or at least, not as important as whoever is on their phone, or the song they can't stop playing. 


It took me a little while to read this book. I wanted to pay attention to what it was saying. And that took some time.

It was a worthy read.

I'll leave you with one last quote.

"But when we give another person our attention, we're giving away that portion of our life. We don't get it back. We're giving our attention to what seems worthy of our life from moment to moment. Attention, the cultivation of attention, is absolutely core."

1 comment:

  1. the technological world is a very scary thing!! definitely worth thinking about.

    LOVE that picture of the silo