What Was I Working on Again? Part III – Driven to Distraction

The July 15 Information Overload conference was chock full of information.  Last but not least on the program was Maggie Jackson.

Jackson was one of the first journalists to interview me on the topic of information overload; she writes for the Boston Globe (a fact that led me, until a month or so ago, to believe she lived in Boston) on the topic of work-life balance.

Jackson’s book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, was recently published and, given her knowledge in this field and the timing of her book, I thought it appropriate to invite her to speak about the book (and to sign a few copies as well).

The underlying theme of Jackson’s book is the erosion of attention, attention to work, attention to information, even attention to eating and leisure activities.  If we continue to squander how we use attention, we may descend into an era where emptiness rather than fulfillment rules, where one never goes sufficiently in depth in one area because a virtual clock is ticking that guarantees something will intrude three minutes hence.

Yet all is not lost.

Technologies may appear to rule but the threat of machines taking over is not a new theme.  Rampant in science fiction and the cinema (think Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times), indeed S. Fowler’s “Automata” (1929) comes to mind (machines take over all human activities and eventually eliminate the human species).  A few others of this genre include E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), about a future earth where a central machine makes all decisions and caters to all needs through automated appendages (most humans live below ground and need the omnipotent Machine for survival) and Lionel Britton’s “The Brain” (1930), where a mechanical brain is the last and only form of intelligence on a doomed planet earth fifty million years hence (to its credit, it does contain all knowledge in existence).

George Parons Lathrop envisaged a 22nd century with automated factories run by a single person at a keyboard in “In the Deep of Time” and Jules Verne’s “Paris in the Twentieth Century” foresaw giant calculating machines that resembled “huge pianos,” also operated via a keyboard.

But back to Jackson, who argued that our inability to focus portends an impending Dark Age, which would translate to our civilization’s decline despite technological advancement.  While the world becomes a global village, it has also become more fragmented and disembodied.

Distracted is well researched (although a good part of Jackson’s research is outside of the past half century), well rounded, reasonably focused on the issue (although there are inexplicable detours, such as the cultural history of the fork), and it should be required reading for every knowledge worker.  You can purchase a copy at Amazon.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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