Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Our Distracted Culture

I picked up an interesting book recently entitled, Distracted, The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson.

Jackson's premise is that our technologically saturated culture is eroding our capacity to focus and engage in reflective thought regarding just about anything. In the name of progress we may be sliding down a slippery slope with our BlackBerrys, email, and PowerPoint explanations of complex subject matter.

"Is this progress?", she asks, "We have reason to worry. Kids are the inveterate multitaskers, the technologically fluent new breed that is better suited for the lightening paced, many-threaded digital world, right? After all, they are bathed in an average of nearly six hours a day of nonprint media content, and a quarter of that time they are using more than one screen, dial, or channel. Nearly a third of fourteen to twenty-one-year-olds juggle five to eight media while doing homework. Yet for all their tech fluency, kids show less patience, skepticism, tenacity and skill than adults in navigating the Web, all while overestimating their prowess, studies show...

"While undoubtedly the reasons for this state of affairs are myriad, what's certain is that we can't be a nation of reflective, analytic problem solvers while cultivating a culture of distraction...

"An executive at a top accounting firm, who was researching the future workforce, confided to me his deep concerns that young workers are less and less able to concentrate, think deeply, or mine a vein of inquiry. Knowledge work can't be done in sound bites, he warned."

I find it interesting because it answers any number of questions which have plagued me for quite some time regarding public discourse in our country, such as the unwillingness to engage in sustained thought and our penchant for quick answers to things like poverty, the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, race and education, among other things.

For nearly ten years now, we have lauded simplistic inarticulate speech as 'plain spoken'; we have made the word, 'intellectual' a pejorative and more and more we have reduced public education to test taking proficiency, and higher education to specific training in particular fields.

The social and political systems which call for the most overhaul, require something other than snappy, bumper sticker logic and yet it is those who provide such, claim our minimized attention in such a way that they become our heroes, our role models and our political leaders.

Jackson offers a prescient warning for those of us who don't recognize the danger:

"...a dark age is not a one-dimensional time of unending disintegration. Rather, it is a distinct turning point in history, a period of flux that often produces great technological and other gains yet ultimately results in a declining civilization and a desert like spell of collective forgetting."

Maybe we're on the precipice of such an age, maybe not. But our future depends on our capacity to focus and to demand substance of ourselves, our children and our leaders.

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