Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Distracted &mdash by Maggie Jackson (Book Review)

Distracted by Maggie Jackson book cover

The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
By Maggie Jackson
Hardcover, 327 pages, $ 25.95
Published by Prometheus Books, 2008

Is our planet Earth plummeting into another Dark Age, a mire of disintegration and self-destruction, lifeless and loveless, where not a spark of defiance fires the human soul, where no children laugh, no birds sing, and no swift shoes are flung at lamely-ducking presidents?

One expects this sensational warning in modern films. But when alarms are sounded from beyond Hollywood — from some our best and most sincere minds — it is time to face the problem and closely pay attention. Jane Jacobs (Dark Age Ahead), Jared Diamond (Collapse), Martin Rees (Our Final Hour), Charlene Spretnak (The Resurgence of the Real), and Albert Gore (An Inconvenient Truth) have all written non-fiction works warning us about unpleasant things in our possible or probable future. Distracted, by Maggie Jackson, is an important contribution to this growing genre. With clarity and compassion, Jackson explores the dangers of our hi-tech lifestyle, describing how and why our world is darkening, and providing some illuminating hints about what we might do to reverse the dangerous trends.

Distracted by Maggie Jackson book cover
A much-quoted bumper-sticker in our town (popular in the pre-Obama era) reminds us:

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Attention is the key, says Jackson: a lack of attention (distraction) is the essence of our problems, and our hope for the future depends on cultivating “a renaissance of attention.” Jackson explains psychologist Michael Posner’s a definition that divides attention into three “networks”: orienting, alerting, and the executive.

Jackson travels around the U.S.A. to observe people and to talk with researchers connected to her theme. All the while, she quotes many useful literary sources, old and new, including the greatly misunderstood play by Capek (R.U.R.); the eerily prescient science fiction story by E. M. Forster (The Machine Stops); and Mary Shelley's saga of a dysfunctional monster (Frankenstein). I have been studying this notion (ABC: Attention, Being fully in the present, Concentration) for more than a year, and I thought that I could not be surprised with information new to me. Happily, I was very wrong. Jackson introduced me to the French science fiction author, Albert Robida (1848 to 1926). Robida wrote a short story about the future (the year 1965); interviewed about his predictions, he said (and he is talking about us):

Modern Times film: stuck in the gears

“Their every day will be caught in the wheels of a mechanized society to the point where I wonder how they will find the time to enjoy the most simple pleasures we had at our disposal: silence, calm, solitude. Having never known them, they shall not be able to miss them. As for me, I do — and I pity them.”

Robida wondered then, and — more than a century later — I am wondering now. But for pity there is no time. Quickly we must turn down the noise, simplify our lives, learn the art of attention, and cultivate our minds.

—Michael Pastore