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Book Review of: Distracted

The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

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Review of Distracted, by Maggie Jackson (Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

A book that deserves your undivided attention....

A core concept of the martial arts is focus. That's where you get your power from ("your chi is concentrated"). The laser, which we use to cut through the hardest of steel, is nothing more than focused light. Any endeavor that requires brainpower, from sports to engineering, requires the ability to tune out everything except the task at hand. The ability to focus is a learned skill, and most people aren't learning it. In today's video and sound bite world, in fact, massive numbers of people are unlearning it.

Why does the stupidity epidemic continue to spread, despite its horrible cost? One answer may simply be that people are too distracted to pay attention. Consequently, they are not fully engaging their brains and focusing on what they are reading, saying, seeing, or hearing. This is a real problem in, for example, the task of driving an automobile. All of us can spot the "cell phone driver" from a distance, and there's a reason why.

It's the same reason this country has a shortage of qualified engineers, a shortage of senior project managers (average age now for the SMs in the construction industry is north of sixty), and such widespread ignorance of basic science, geography, and other subjects that require study. It's why only about half of voting-age Americans can correctly identify the three branches of the federal government.

When people are chronically distracted, something is wrong with their ability, desire, or discipline to filter out nonessential things and focus on what matters or what really has value. The result is a watered down life experience and a weakened intellect.

The effect is so pronounced and ubiquitous that, Jackson asserts, we as a society are poised on the edge of a coming dark time. I'm the first person to cry "alarmist" when an author raises dire warnings. But in this case, I have to agree with Jackson. When you read her book, which is the result of intense research, you will probably also agree.

Many other factors contribute to the stupidity epidemic, such as toxic diets, stupidity immersion (e.g., television), idiotic lyrics blaring from radios, lack of serious reading, and a failed "education" system. But the widespread lack of focus may be the main problem.

The cultural norms of today work against focus, as this book explains. Fortunately, that doesn't mean you have to accept those norms and sink into mindlessness. Jackson provides insight into the lack of focus issue and further insight into how to avoid being a casualty of this intelligence-sapping problem.

This book is well-researched, well-written, and timely. Unlike many works that hit the non-fiction list today, it actually is non-fiction. Given the subject, the author could easily digress into editorializing her personal political agenda (which is a common problem with "non" fiction today). But, she doesn't. In fact, I have no idea what it is.

The author stays focused on the issues the book is about, which, given what the book is about, should be no surprise.

If you're looking for something that will provide a formulaic solution to our ADHD culture, or ten steps to inoculate yourself against the stupidity epidemic, this isn't it. The author isn't pushing easy self-help solutions that she can later talk about on Oprah. Nor is she using a book as a way to promote herself for gigs on the rubber chicken circuit. She wrote an intellectually serious work that is engaging and enlightening.

As the author points out, much of what we read, hear, and say today is just surface noise. That's not what you get in this book. What you get is a properly developed work that is well-worth reading.

Earlier, I said Distracted is well-researched. That's a qualitative statement, so let me quantify it. The book is 268 pages from start to finish, followed by 50 pages of tightly-written bibliography (nearly 20% the size of the book itself ). There are about 60 references per chapter, with 79 references for Chapter 6. Somehow, Jackson manages to weave all this research into a flowing, engaging narrative.

Usually when a book is really good, I'll say it was a page-turner or I couldn't put it down. Oddly enough, I can't say that about Distracted. The reason, however, is the book made me stop and think. The author would sometimes make a point so profound or so worth mulling over that I just had to stop and digest it for a while. How many books can you think of that make you want to do that?

Distracted consists of three Parts. Part I explains where we are now, and consists of four chapters. These give us the "lay of the land" and many examples to show how things are. Part II delves into the "deepening twilight" and consists of three chapters. These help us see how we're trending the wrong way and what factors are contributing to those trends.

Part III poses the question, "Dark Times or Renaissance of Attention?" At several points, I put the book down just to think about some point or another, because especially in this part of the book she says much that just makes you want to stop and think.

In Chapter 8, "McThinking and the Future of the Past," Jackson looks at such issues as cultural memory, how a child's ability to delay gratification is a reliable predictor of success as an adult, and what the difference is between cultivating information and merely stockpiling it. A key concept I like is that the ability to select what to retain and what to discard is an important part of being able to handle information.

In Chapter 9, "The Gift of Attention," Jackson looks at the breaking developments in cognitive research, especially in relation to the ability to deliberately focus one's attention. Some of what she reveals is more academic, while other revelations have more immediate and practical value for the reader. She doesn't wrap it all up in a nice, neat conclusion because there are many things the reader can conclude while reading this chapter. But a common theme in such conclusions is that we can choose to be in charge of our minds rather than let distractions blow us around like so much tumbleweed.

As someone who has studied the stupidity epidemic for several years now, I am increasingly convinced we (as individuals) can choose to let ourselves become stupid or we can make deliberate choices that, by exercise of some personal discipline, spare us that fate. Most people aren't making those deliberate choices or exercising that discipline. But, many are. All of us can.

Being mindful strengthens the mind. When you're constantly distracted, you can't be mindful--you're too busy shifting mental gears all the time. The "default value" is chronic distraction, but the good news is you can choose to be mindful and you can make other choices that keep you from being chronically distracted. Jackson shows us what some of those choices are, and that's also good news. The choices aren't hard to make or to carry out.

Jackson's book goes beyond my pet interest, however. While chronic distraction is sapping our collective IQs, it's also destroying our ability to interact with each other. Here's something to think about (not in Jackson's book). Even critics of Bill Clinton acknowledge his charm and charisma. When Alan Greenspan went to meet Clinton for the first time, he was doubtful that he wanted to continue on as Chairman of the Federal Reserve with Clinton in the White House. When Greenspan left that meeting, he felt tremendously loyal to Clinton. From doubting Thomas to committed supporter in a single meeting. How did Clinton do it? Greenspan said, "He made me feel like the center of his universe. Everything else was blanked out and he was totally there. He focused on me." 

When one person focuses on another and listens to that person, the other person feels respected. Respect is the foundation of any good relationship. When people never truly engage with other people, haven't they also given up on what it means to be human?

If someone is talking to you in person and the phone rings, show respect by ignoring the phone. If you have a television on and someone  visits you, turn the television off and focus on that person. If a child talks to you, stop what you are doing and listen. Be completely there. If you don't understand the power of such actions and the cost of failing to take them, read Chapter Two.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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