Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WARNING! Staying Focused In The Age Of Distraction

When we pander to our machines rather than look each other fully in the eye, when doctors interrupt, on average, after 18 seconds of listening to the patient, when two-thirds of the children 18 and under grow up in homes where the TV is on most of the time, which is an environment linked to attention difficulties -- when we can't think -- when, in a knowledge economy, we can't find the time to think deeply, to wrestle with an idea or a problem -- well, we're really facing a dark age on many scores.

-- Maggie Jackson, Journalist and Author, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

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What happens if we just pay a little attention to too much information? What if everything comes at us at once and we don't distinguish between the wheat and the chaff? Boston Globe columnist Maggie Jackson thinks it's cause for concern. In her latest book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Jackson warns that an inability to focus is a social problem that requires addressing. She culls through social science research and presents a compelling argument that takes into account everything from neuroscientific breakthroughs to Medieval history. She says it's time we paid attention to each other and to our inner voices -- it's time we relearn to think deeply by filtering out distractions. It could make us better people and a better society. Can we give it a try?

* * *

BuzzFlash: Your book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, is absolutely fascinating. Personally I can relate to this cultural disorder. Am I correct that you are arguing that many of us, in large part due to technology and the emergence of the entertainment industry, have become stricken with adult attention deficit disorder.

Maggie Jackson: Yes -- I'm talking about a kind of cultural form of attention deficit disorder. But I'm really arguing that because of all sorts of different trends, both related to technology and other ways which we experience time and space now, we are not really going deeply. My book really is about how we are losing the ability to think deeply and to connect deeply. That's the real cost of this overloaded, hurried, split-focus world we live in.

BuzzFlash: What does technology have to do with this?

Maggie Jackson: That's a good question. I hear again and again: "Blame the Blackberry." But one very important point is that this way of life didn't come in, really, with the Blackberry, or with the i-Pod. The high-tech inventions from the 19th Century -- the telegraph, the railroad, the jet -- collapsed distance, and gave people alternative virtual realities, also. There's an 1890 novel called Wild Love, about love between telegraph operators. So we've been building towards this level of cultural distraction for a very long time.

It's not just the technologies that have caused us to operate this way -- the gadgets of today. All sorts of inventions and changes in the way we live have also ushered in a world of hyper-mobility. For instance, look at the portable food culture that we live in. I think that is a wonderful illustration of how detached we are from our physical selves and from the earth. It is yet another one of the trends all around us that creates this culture of distraction. Distraction isn't just about watching TV too much or, fooling around on the Internet and just clicking, clicking, clicking and not getting done what you want done. There are a lot of trends here that create a culture of split focus and overload.

BuzzFlash: Many people, and I include myself, find it difficult to block out what I would call hyper-stimulation -- involving speed, portability, and new technologies. We can get in a plane and be in a completely different environment in a fairly limited amount of time. Television gives us an exponential number of realities, as do video games, the Internet and so forth. In contrast, a couple hundred years ago, the only way you had to communicate with another person basically was talking with them directly, or perhaps writing a letter. Those were your two options. Now we have an infinite number of ways to communicate with each other. We have portability in terms of the cell phone, so you can call someone from anywhere. It seems that people are raised, nowadays, almost into a culture where you sort of don't know how to live without all that stimulation.

Maggie Jackson: Right. It's true. It really is a big change in how the human being lives. For hundreds if not millions of years, a message could be given to someone else only if someone physically delivered it. Of course, instantaneous, simultaneous communication happens globally now, as we all know. And all of these changes are wonderful. They give us connectivity.

One sociologist, whose research I wrote about in the book, talks about the five-year archive of a guy named Mike -- just a regular guy named Mike. She looked at his five years of e-mails and discovered he was connected to 11.7 million people in the globe. And that's highly plausible. We just are hyper-connected.

Then we also have incredible freedom and mobility to move wherever. The cost, or underside, to this is diffusion and fragmentation. We're living in this boundary-less climate. We become very diffused socially, and that's really being brought home in some of the research. For one thing, 25% of Americans have no close confidante, they say, and that's up significantly from just twenty years ago.

When I talk about a culture of isolation, despite this supreme connectivity, people really nod their heads -- agreeing with the idea that we don't know our neighbors. There are studies that show that the more ties you have, even in your core network, the less contact you have in all forms -- visits, telephone calls, of course, letters. No one writes anymore. Contacts with your close ties -- families and friends -- go down except for e-mail, which is wonderful but it's faceless and a very thin form of communication.

So I'm arguing the same thing is true of the way we work. I see danger signs for our critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

One example is OCPD measurements of fifteen-year-olds -- obsessive compulsive personality disorder. We rank 24th out of 29 developed countries on analytical reasoning skills -- U.S. fifteen-year-olds do -- and that's really alarming. These are precisely the skills we need in the 21st century if we are to go forward. The same is true for knowledge workers. A third of workers today say they are so interrupted and so busy that they don't have time to think.

But in a different way, this is a culture that we value. We can't imagine sitting still. We think of being local as being weak and unsuccessful. We value movement so tremendously that it seems as if you're kind of a loser if you're sitting still and thinking, whether in the office or on the train. I really think we need to recapture some of these ways in which we can focus better. You can't focus as well when life is a blur.

I could not agree more!

BuzzFlash: You mentioned motion. A lot of our economy is built on motion. Consumption is built on motion -- the latest fashion, the latest invention, the latest toy, the latest piece of electronic equipment. In other words, as a society, there's a motion about consumption. We aren't satisfied with what we have. We always want what's new. What feeds our economy is getting the latest thing out. In general, as a country, what's made our economics such a surging one worldwide is, in large part, due to our insatiable consumption. That's because we're always looking for the next thing to stimulate us or satisfy us. So does that fit into this pattern?

Maggie Jackson: Yes. I didn't really look into the consumption society as much. I was looking at how our attention is affected. But, you know, there's a cultural geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, who's at the University of Wisconsin, whose work I really admire. He calls place a "realm of pause," and also "a field of care," whereas space is a canvas for movement. And truly we're using space, the boundary-less-ness. And I think that does feed the idea that you can always get a better thing, that you need to be perpetually on the move or, again, you're not successful.

For instance there's something that I call optionality -- that virtual worlds bring us the sense of optionality -- that we can click and something better will come our way. And that's affecting executive recruiting, where people can't really find a candidate because there's always someone else out there. It's affecting Internet dating. You see this sort of optionality making people very unhappy because they can never really stop. They can never really find what they think they want. So you're right -- it really does feed into all I'm talking about.

I do want to talk a little bit about what attention is.

BuzzFlash: You have a sort of guru that you end with -- Michael Posner. Maybe that's a place to start in terms of his theories about attention.

Maggie Jackson: Yes. What's interesting is that attention is something that most of us don't think about. It's right under our noses. It's enormously overlooked, and yet we're all joking uneasily that we live in an ADD (attention deficit disorder) society. When I discovered that attention was really an important factor in our experiences of time and space, I began to research it. And it's just fascinating. There have been many discoveries in just the last ten to twenty years about the nature and workings of attention, and none of this really has been written about outside of the medical literature.

Attention is really a human's key to living in your environment. You need to both focus on what's new in your environment all the time -- the human needs to stay tuned to the changes in the environment to survive. Yet, at the same time, you need to pursue your goals. So we're always in this kind of balancing act, regarding our ability to pay attention. Thanks to Michael Posner's research out of the University of Oregon, and others, attention is now considered by many neuroscientists as akin to an organ system. Your circulation and your digestive system and parts of the brain work in alignment in responding to a particular fear. Well, the same with attention.

One part of attention is focus, which is again orienting to something new or focusing on another's awareness, which is also called alerting. If you're in a coma, you're not very aware. If you're caffeinated, you're hyper-aware.

There's also executive attention, which is decision-making and planning. These skills couldn't be more important, especially in today's world. I think we spend too much time reacting to our environment, to the beats and the pings, allowing our externalities, in many ways, to push us along in life and we're not as much focusing on our goals.

I think our attentional skills are being undermined by how we live -- and the way we live breeds detachment and split focus and lack of executive planning. We're also not pursuing our goals. We're just allowing whatever comes along to steer us. That's what distraction, in many ways, is all about.

BuzzFlash: In Buddhism, there's the concept of mindfulness, which deals with being free of distractions, engaging in the moment. It contrasts with the type of distraction of politicians who work a rope line, which you describe, and they're shaking one person's hand while looking at the next person.

Maggie Jackson: Yes.

BuzzFlash: That's kind of how we live our lives. It's almost always for the next moment.

Maggie Jackson: Yes.

BuzzFlash: I know that you said the Blackberry is not responsible. But I think we've all been in situations where we've been with people where a person is on a Blackberry. Maybe I'm talking to the person. They're responding to an e-mail on Blackberry. They get a cell phone call. They pick up the cell phone. They answer the cell phone call. They get back to me. They get back to the Blackberry. I don't think in a situation like that there's much attention going on.

Maggie Jackson: No, not at all. The idea of continuous partial attention -- that's a term that's being used -- or what I call split focus, really undermine relationships, not only because cognitively you can't really pay attention to two things at once very well. But also because it's just downright rude.

There's an engineer in Intel who's now trying to combat information overload, Nathan Zeldes. He says, when we're all keeping one eye on the Blackberry in meetings, we're losing the opportunity for that creative coming together of the minds, which is what a meeting is supposed to be all about. We're sort of shattering our chance for any creativity.

I talk in the book about "giving the gift of attention." That's a term from a fellow who studies Tibetan Buddhism, and particularly studies techniques of training attention, Alan Wallace. He used those words -- giving the gift of attention -- and I thought that was very powerful. He says that if you jump in and save a baby who's drowning and you drown, well, you're giving your life all at once. If you give someone your attention, you're giving a piece of your life at that moment, because you're deciding that's what you value. That's the priority for those few minutes. And you can't get that piece of your life back. So it's truly a gift.

I think we're simply unwilling to give each other our full attention. Look at all of the lack of understanding in relationships, the loneliness, the social isolation. Our really giving the gift of attention might do something to make us feel truly connected -- and not super, hyper, e-mail instant message connected, but really actually connected in the post-modern world.

BuzzFlash: You talk ominously in the subtitle of your book of the coming "dark age." What do you mean by that? That certainly sounds very foreboding.

Maggie Jackson: People have been talking about the digital age, the information age. I thought at the beginning of writing this book that I would research what constituted a turning point in civilization. That led me to look at different dark ages throughout time.

It's interesting that dark ages are not necessarily all negative. I think that's a kind of illusion. We have the idea that nothing goes well in a dark age. It's a time of horror. But, actually, in the Middle Ages and in other dark ages there were tremendous technological advances. I found that very intriguing.

I think that we are really in the midst or on the cusp of defining our own dark age. When we pander to our machines rather than look each other fully in the eye, when doctors interrupt, on average, after 18 seconds of listening to the patient, when two-thirds of the children 18 and under grow up in homes where the TV is on most of the time, which is an environment linked to attention difficulties -- when we can't think -- when, in a knowledge economy, we can't find the time to think deeply, to wrestle with an idea or a problem -- well, we're really facing a dark age on many scores. So a dark age can be a wonderful time, but the costs are steep.

BuzzFlash: Certainly, what comes out of it could be wonderful, but while you're in the middle of it, it's certainly fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. It could bring one back, to clear and cleanse oneself of these distractions.

Maggie Jackson: Exactly. I agree.

BuzzFlash: I think it's very hard for people, myself included, to begin to come to terms with this. How does one take the first step? I'm, again, a poster child for your book. But I've taken the step of doing something eccentric in this age. I don't have a cell phone. I am a creature of the Internet. It's the nature of editing BuzzFlash and other sites associated with the BuzzFlash network. I'm always on the Internet when there's a computer around. But I don't have a cell phone. And I found that's a tremendous asset, because when I'm on the train riding into work, or I'm in the car driving, I have a chance to think. I'm not responding to someone calling me about something, which almost invariably is not an emergency or has to be dealt with right away. That's not generally the type of calls that people get on cell phones. It used to be there were no message machines. Then with answering machines, you would come home and listen to messages. But if you had left work and you were going home, no one could reach you and you had time to think.

Maggie Jackson: Right. It also made a boundary between work and home that we don't have anymore. One of the two main suggestions I have for people is trying to dial back on this climate of distraction. I can talk in a minute about our internal resources -- like the fact that attention can be trained and strengthened, which is absolutely fascinating, and that's just beginning to be discovered.

At the same time, I don't think we should just lie out in the road and say, hey, this is the way it is. Overload -- that's it. When we really become cognizant of the costs to our society, I don't think we really need to stand for this. I'm going to start an advocacy group called Mothers Against Multi-Tasking, to stand up and say, just because kids can technologically push buttons and find their way around on the Internet does not mean that they know how to create wisdom, or that they are wise. We really need to push back on multi-tasking.

I'd add that, study after study shows that kids are less persistent and less able to evaluate and assess the information that they see on the Web. So we need to be the adults. We need to give guidelines. We need to speak up against the multi-tasking, the hurry. Forty percent of Gen Y text-message while they drive. Twenty percent of Americans in total text-message while they drive. It couldn't be more dangerous. So I think the noisy environments are kind of crazed environments at work and at home. We need to carve out time for focus and quiet.

Some companies are starting something called white space. That could be either a room that's unwired, uninterrupted, or it could be a time on the calendar. IBM has, for instance, "Think Fridays." It started as a grassroots tradition in the software engineering department -- they were tired of not having any time for creative work. So they began to not answer e-mail or answer phone calls or do meetings on Fridays. It's spread globally. It's never a policy. It's just spread globally because people think it's a wonderful idea. That's one way we can kind of tap back the climate of distraction.

We also need to really learn to speak a language of attention. As I was mentioning, give the gift of attention. Learn about the different forms of attention. These are incredible arrows in our cognitive quiver. For instance, this book really changed my life. It was amazing to learn so much about how we're living, what the costs are, and then also the beauty of attention.

Now, when I really need to focus, I will be ruthless and go away or make myself a place and time for that deep thought. I just don't take for granted that I can do something on the run, on the fly, running through an airport with my cell phone.

BuzzFlash: I want to ask you a question which has to do with a pet theory we talk about with different authors on BuzzFlash. With all this overstimulation, there's a sense that not only have we not become analytical, but we've almost become ahistorical. We're bombarded with so much data and information, it's impossible to remember it all. There's a new wash every day. We don't have much of a sense of history. Also, we don't go back very far as a country. And this has come out in surveys -- that people really don't know history very well. They don't remember events from a year or two ago. We constantly seem to be recycling mistakes because we don't remember we made them the last time.

Is this part of all of this over-stimulation? It seems to me if you give something attention, it's more likely to impress itself on you to the point where you remember it. But if you're constantly bombarded with stimulation that is almost all equal, in terms of its impact, it's just stimulation. You really don't have a value scale for historical events or even a memory.

Maggie Jackson: Yes, and that is a great point on many levels. I think this problem of an ahistoric democracy is huge, and it's related partly to the nature of information itself. We live in a world of information bits which seem to be completely interchangeable. You know, Geoffrey Nunberg, a great linguist in California, compares information to sands or succotash. It's all information that's in little snippets, little chunks. There's a sort of flattening of priorities or a flattening of a sense that some information is more valuable and more important than others.

If you look also at the way the TV screen is broken up by the crawl, studies have found that when people are listening to TV, where there's a crawl, they remember 10% less of the news. Again, you have this flattening. It could be 9/11, and yet there's this crawl where they're talking about the local community college basketball game. It puts them on a par in our minds. So the nature of information and the boundary-less-ness of information leads itself to this sort of trivialization of our world, and also splits our focus. Multi-tasking may lead -- and I think it's fairly plausible -- to a kind of shallow learning. To really learn something deeply -- attention is the building block for memory. It's a gatekeeper for memory. You can't learn something deeply unless you pay deep attention.

(That damn crawl started with 9/11 and it gives me a freakin' headache. So, I don't read the damn thing. Of course, I do realize that much gets reported on the crawl that isn't even so much as mentioned by the corporate-whore-anchors, who are beside themselves with angst about whether Obama is wearing a flag-lapel pin that day or not, while the crawl has just reported that the underbellies of our planes are still not safe, as well as our ports. I don't think that T.V. news can honestly say the have reported something if it is on that damn crawl. Leave print news to the press, which I do read, and have almost every day since I was in college, forty years ago. I have never considered just one news outlet as being the be-all, end-all of news reporting, especially TV news and I don't today. I wish that everyone has more than one news source.)

One study out of UCLA found that students who multi-task learn the information, but not deeply. They weren't able to take the information they'd learned when multi-tasking and use it in new and creative ways -- in that sort of deep, deep, wonderful transferable learning. That is drop-dead chilling. I have to stress that this is not a generational issue. I think we're all needing to wake up to what we're doing. But when kids multi-task at home, as 60% do, sometimes, at least, maybe they're getting an A on a paper, but they're undermining their education over the long term.

Like being able to connect the dots when there is political criminality in power in this country; even the recent dots, let alone dots from pasts decades. God, have I seen a lot, lately, of people who can't do that. I talk to people all the time who say, how can you remember all that stuff? Well, it was because I was paying attention at the time and I pay attention now. Thankfully, neither senility nor Alzheimer's has set in yet

Kids need to be taught how to gather information and how to think, not what to think. In other words, they need to learn how to think critically and deeply about a subject and how various subjects are connected. They need to be informed and taught how to connect the dots; not only the dots of today, but how those dots can connect the dots from decades ago.

Hint: Same people, just different chairs on the Titanic

BuzzFlash: Perhaps as a culture we can escape the dark ages and the destiny of being a mile wide and an inch deep, which is, I think, the hallmark of a distracted culture.

We highly recommend that our readers pay attention to your book, Distracted, and read it not in spurts but in a concentrated period of time where they can give it their full attention, because it certainly deserves it. It certainly is a warning sign for our culture that more information is not necessarily more knowledge. So thank you, Maggie Jackson, very much.

Maggie Jackson: Thank you very much. I appreciated your interest and great conversation.

BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

But, we won't take this warning seriously, will we? We never do.

Maybe we are all just suicidal and need to be on a locked ward, for our own good and that of others around the world.

The people who have seen fit to intentionally manipulate us through the above mentioned disorders should be hung on the National Mall.

I wonder if there would be enough room?

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. I.U. has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is I.U endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.

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