By Emily Stimpson
Why do our to-do lists never grow shorter? Why do our in-boxes never empty? And why do we never have enough time to clean out our closets, let alone do the things that matter most -- praying, reading and spending time with those we love?
According to Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age" (Prometheus, $18), the answer is that we live in a culture multitasking itself to death. Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Jackson about the ideas she raised in her book and where our culture of distraction may be leading us.
Our Sunday Visitor: Let's start by defining two of the terms you use throughout your book: "Attention" and "Distraction."
Maggie Jackson: Attention comes from the Latin attendare, which can mean to stretch toward something. That gives a hint of attention's possibilities. It's the gatekeeper of our ability to engage, absorb and understand our environment, as well as to pursue our goals. As for distraction, in the most modern sense of the word it means being pulled away to something secondary. In the past, one of the meanings of the word was "being pulled in pieces." I think that's a good definition of how people feel today. It better explains this culture of distraction. It's not simply escapism -- being distracted by the television -- but really being fragmented and diffused.
OSV: What are some of the trademarks of the "culture of distraction"?
Jackson: Both at work and at home, you see people constantly putting out fires. They're ticking items off their agenda but never getting the most difficult work done. So many feel like they can barely keep their heads above water. Research shows that nearly a third of workers feel they're so busy and interrupted that they have no time to reflect on the work they do. The average worker switches tasks every three minutes, all day long. People also don't have time to pursue meaningful relationships. One study indicates that 25 percent of American adults say they have no close confidant. Essentially, the way we're living is very reactive. We're always trying to respond to a new interruption -- a beep, a ring, a ping -- and that's compromising our ability to focus, to plan and pursue our goals, as well as to build real relationships.
OSV: What's to blame for our distraction?
Jackson: It's our attachment to technology. It's also our desire to be "up to date," our willingness to do too many things at once and our belief that we need to keep up with a million different social connections via Facebook. We're flooded by information, by choices and by constant change. That leaves us overloaded, fragmented and hurried. This has enormous implications for our ability to pay attention. Your ability to be aware of your surroundings is compromised by rushing. It's the downside to living with all the great new technologies we have. And they are wonderful. I'm not advocating getting rid of technology -- just advocating living with it more wisely.
OSV: How does living in a culture of distraction affect our ability to learn?
Jackson: It biases us toward the quick and the brief, toward being satisfied with whatever answer comes up first on Google. In many ways, students today acquire a breadth of information, but not necessarily depth. There's less going deep, less wrestling with a text and making learning one's own. Living a life of distraction does not help kids read better, think more critically or become good citizens. Half of all college students can't judge the objectivity of a website. These are the digital natives, and somehow they're not learning how to evaluate and learn.
OSV: And what about home life? What is distraction doing to our families?
Jackson: The American family is so busy; parents have very few minutes together with kids. But it's not just time together. It's what we do in that time. The number of hours that mothers multitask has risen from 40 hours a week in 1975 to more than 80 hours a week now. Also, the walls of our homes have become so porous. Technology has created the possibility and the expectation that we should be totally connected with the outside world when we're home. This undermines family togetherness. What is togetherness when everyone is checking a gadget at the supper table? Attention is the building block of intimacy. If we're only half-tuned into one another, we're not setting the stage for the rich, serendipitous encounters that fuel happiness and relationships.
OSV: That applies to faith as well, right?
Jackson: The first modern use of distraction actually appears in a handbook for nuns in 12th-century England. Attention has so much to do with faith. Attention is the steppingstone to understanding oneself, and then moving past oneself, to recognizing that there's something more important than ourselves and our egos, and focusing on that.
OSV: In your book, you warn that this culture of distraction could lead to a new "dark age." What do you mean by that?
Jackson: A dark age doesn't necessarily mean that all the lights go out and everything fizzles. Technological inventiveness can accompany cultural decline. For example, the cultivation of the olive in Greece occurred at the same time as a decline in literacy and cultural progress. Right now, we're living in a time of great technological inventiveness. But it's also a time of cultural forgetting. We're becoming a society less and less able to build on the past. When we're facing a steep decline in literacy, when we're facing an epidemic of relational autism, an inability to connect with each other in deep, rich ways, when we're raising kids who struggle to evaluate and assess the information that surrounds them -- those are signs to me that we are on the brink of another dark age.
In times past, ignorance has been often brought about by lack of information, but now we run the risk of ignorance because of too much information. We have so much information, but do we have knowledge? Are we wise? Are we too distracted to face the big problems all around us? This is a time of warning. We need to wake up to the cost of what we've created.
Start small. Set aside at least 15 minutes every morning or evening for quiet prayer and a private conversation with God.
At the dinner table, ban cell phones. Let the home phone go to voice mail. And keep the television off while you eat.
Set a time limit for how many minutes each day you spend online for personal reasons.
Lose some "friends." Take a hatchet to "friends' lists on social-networking sites, pairing them down to only those who really matter.
Eliminate clutter from your home -- piles of paper in the dining room, backpacks on the stairway, clothes on the chair in the bedroom.
When working on a project that requires your close attention, turn down the volume on your computer so that you can't hear the "pings" announcing a new e-mail.
Unless you're driving across country with little ones, keep the DVD player in the minivan off. And when you're by yourself in the car, try turning off the radio every once in a while and driving in silence.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.