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July 22, 2009

Distracted-- the Coming of a New Dark Age; Rob Kall Interviews author Maggie Jackson

By Rob Kall

Maggie Jackson's book, DISTRACTED describes a world entering a new dark age, where attention is becoming a lost art and shallowness prevails. Rob Kall interviews her about culture, politics and more.


Originally Published on OpEdNews

This is a transcript of an interview conducted on the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM, on Wednesday, July 18, 2009

Thanks to the transcription team, headed by Paula Sayles.

Rob Kall: Welcome to the Rob Kall Radio Show. Tonight we're going to have a conversation with Maggie Jackson the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention in the Coming Dark Age. First, a little bit of recent news.-

The CIA has kept secrets from Congress and the big secret was that former Vice President Dick Cheney told the CIA to keep the secrets and the secrets were about assassination squads.- This is making big news.- Today it was the main article in The Wall Street Journal, the NY Times and the Washington Post.- My question is will Congress do anything about it?- Will Attorney General Eric Holder launch any kind of an investigation?-

This is serious stuff.- These institutions of spying are supposed to be accountable.- When they don't tell what's going on to the people that are supposed to track them, then there's something really broken.- The question is, will Obama and his Administration attempt to fix it, or will they let it rest so they can retain the power that it gives to the Executive Branch?-

Then, we have, in Congress right now, hearings.- The Senate is interviewing Judge Sonia Sotomayor.- The question is, just how ugly will the minority Republicans get in questioning a clearly qualified candidate?- How many Republicans will decide to not vote in support of her when she is probably the most qualified candidate in decades?-

And then, just on a humorous note, Nancy Wheeler goes by the handle "Empty Wheel" on Firedoglake.- She is somebody I have met many times at different progressive media events.- Nancy was on MSNBC yesterday and they were talking about the CIA secrets and Cheney's assassination squad and she pointed out how for five years, Congress talked about and investigated Bill Clinton and his blowjob.- Yes, the BJ word.- And all of a sudden, when she said that word, pointing out how they spent five years on that, and would they spend any time on investigating CIA secret death squads, what did they talk about?- Oh, those words, those two terrible words!- And of course, that was a way to distract away from the real issue which is death squads, secret death squads hidden from Congress.- And so, we get into distraction.- And, Maggie?

Maggie Jackson:-Yes.

Rob Kall:-We're going to talk about distraction tonight.- We're going to talk about Maggie Jackson's -brilliant book that talks about how we may be entering a dark age, an age of distraction and an erosion of attention.- Boy, taking on some big stuff here.

Maggie Jackson:-Oh yes, well, it's good to look at the big picture.- We can't always keep our nose in our Blackberries, can we?-

Rob Kall:-Excuse me, what were you saying?- I was checking out an email. (laughs)

Maggie Jackson:-Aren't we all, aren't we all?- I'm sure many of your listeners are multi-tasking while we speak.-

Rob Kall:-It seems to be the way.- You know, it's interesting because I mentioned to you the other day that I call the show "The Bottom Up Radio Show" and I said I'd like to put in to this interview, if possible, some angle of bottom up to what we were talking about.- And you said that you weren't sure, but the more I read your book, the clearer it was to me that you're talking about the other side of it.-

What I've been excited about with this bottom up revolution is that we are moving into a world where people participate in a lot of different ways and they connect in different ways.- And what you're writing about is how this connection to the Internet and the tapping of the power of the Internet is diluting attention and it's eroding connection.

Maggie Jackson:-Right.- That's the flip side, exactly.- We're highly connected, and yet, are we deeply connected?- Also, how are we defining connection?- If communications and relationships are merely a matter of snippets of time with one another, asynchronous and done while doing six other different things, what kind of a connection is that?- Both, again, in terms of the message that we may be exchanging with other human beings and also the intimacy, the emotional content?- I think that we really need to stop and start to think about this.- But yet I am optimistic, despite, I believe, the real risk of entering a dark age.- I am optimistic because just in the last year, I've seen an incredible willingness to rethink use of technology lifestyle.-

It could be the depression/recession or it could be all sorts of different changes.- People seem to be kind of pulling up short and saying, wow what is the substance of my life here and am I being productive, but in what sense of the word?- There's a Buddhist idea, which I'd like to investigate further, that a form of idleness is overwork.- In other words, if you are running around, busy, busy, busy, busy, but never really thinking or confronting the really tough questions in life, you are actually considered idle.- I think that's a fascinating conception right there.-

Rob Kall:-Well, I am very interested in the news media.- And I think that so much of the media that we have is engaged in that kind of overworked idleness, where it pays attention to nothing.-

Maggie Jackson:-Well, I think that we're all guilty.- And as a member of the media, I write a newspaper column"-

Rob Kall:-For who, for what paper?

Maggie Jackson:-The Boston Globe.- A column in the Boston Globe.- I certainly have seen enormous changes in how content is produced.- But we're all going down a certain road.-

You know, there's nothing wrong with Twitter, there's nothing wrong with Blackberries, and nothing in my book spells Luddite.- I really believe that we need to grapple with how to use these technologies more wisely.- We often think that this is all new, but actually our ways of life, the kind of split focus, virtuality, global village, etcetera, these are trends that have been coming upon us for hundreds of years.- We have to actually look back to the first high-tech revolutions, the advent of the cinema, the phonographs, rail, the telegraph, to see the seeds of how we're living today.-

All of this amounts to different changing conceptions of time and space.- Human beings, for millennia, could never go anywhere except by foot.- And they could never communicate with anyone except through messages that were very slow, etcetera.- Well, now we've changed that.- Everything has changed in the last couple of hundred years.- So, in some ways it's new, but in some ways it's become really a part of our environment and what it all adds up to me, the epiphany I had when I was researching these technological changes was that it's all about attention.- Because attention is probably the prime, the most important human faculty that we don't pay any attention to, pun intended.- We don't think about it and yet what we attend to is who we are in so many ways.-

So, what we're really talking about is an attention deficient culture and ways of life.- That's the key to understanding how we can be both reflective and yet high tech, how we can have deeper communications and yet also be connected with the wonderful, incredible, netcentric, broad communications networks that we have at our fingertips.- We can do both.- It's just a matter of becoming more cognizant of how we've gone overboard in terms of adopting these technologies and living in this new world.-

Rob Kall:-I wonder.- In my exploration of this new bottom up world, the groundswell, crowd-sourced, wisdom of the crowd world, I've come to the conclusion that we have a new generation of people under thirty who have basically grown up living with the web, living with instant messaging, eight, ten, twelve people at a time.- When I was a kid, we did not have email where you could send a blast to fifty or a hundred people, we had postage stamps.- We had cards that would go to one person.- These things have changed everything and I think it has changed the neuropsychology of this new generation.- What I'd like to get a handle on is this idea of the deeper connection that you talk about.- That fascinates me.- How, in this new web-connected world can depth be supported?

Maggie Jackson:-Well, I think there are several ways.- When I am talking about it sort of through the prism of recapturing attention, I think there are two ways out, so to speak.- Two ways to both harness the technologies, but also harness our human hunger for depth.- Because we truly do want challenge and depth and communication.- And I can't tell you how many twenty-somethings, even teenagers, people of all generations, say to me, "Thank you because I really thought it was me."- Why aren't we having a conversation at a party?- Twenty-somethings just look at their screens or show things.- Kids, a lot of people aren't happy.-

I think we say, oh it's all changed and yeah, it's true; the changes are radical.- But that doesn't mean that we have to accept all of this.- It's not a matter of fate that we become twittered beings or that teens have to text message twenty-three hours a day.- It actually isn't and there's a lot of pushback.- I think that's really true.-

As far as depth is concerned, there are two ways to change, to shift and it doesn't have to be that difficult in some ways.- First, there's your individual skills of attention, which, as you rightly point out, can be changed by our environment.- Our brain is plastic, the environment shapes us; this is news or this was news.- It's revolutionary.- People in old age grow new neurons, etcetera.- So, the brain is plastic.- We are being shaped by this distracted, split-focused, interrupt-driven environment, but the flipside is that we can actually recover our powers of attention.- There's work being done in schools, psychiatrists, there's work being done with ADD people and people without attention deficiencies.- So, keep an eye on that.- That is going to be revolutionary-the changes in terms of how you harness and strengthen your powers of attention.- This is going to be like gym class, I predict, in schools kids will be taught to strengthen their attention.- And not just through meditation.-

Secondly, there's a collective social challenge before us.- It's not just our individual problem.- It's actually a societal problem.- For instance, when everybody brings their Blackberrys to the meeting at work now, there's a kind of collective social values system being exhibited.- If no one questions this, if no one pushes back, well then why are they even in the meeting?- They're giving half their brain and half their attention to whatever problem drew them to the meeting in that room.- We have these value systems""the first hand up in the classroom is the smart kid, the successful business tycoon is the guy or gal who can't even listen to those around them because they are running at great speed all day long with half an ear and half an eye out to everything that is going on around them.-

Thirdly, why is it necessary that public spaces are laden with screens?- There is no quiet, there is no silence.- Well, we've allowed this and we've sort of perpetrated a cultural value related to attention that we can actually shift and change.- So I think we need to put this topic on the table.- It's incredibly important for democracy.- How can you have a distracted citizenry, less and less able to, or willing to, wrestle with nuance, satisfied with easy answers, unable to comprehend the future?- That's what attention deficiency is all about.- The great ADHD researcher, Russell Barkley, calls ADHD a "disorder of attention to the future."- It's a disorder of time, simply because, without attention, you can't gain perspective, you can't plan, you can't look ahead.- Attention is an enormously complicated set of skills that allow human beings actually to be higher order human beings.-

Rob Kall:-You've raised some interesting thoughts for me.- For many years, I was very involved in the world of ADD and ADHD because I ran conferences on the brain and on neuro-feedback, which is all about teaching people the skills of attention.- Giving them tools instead of drugs.- Which is what Barkley, by the way, pushes primarily.- He has over the years gradually moved to a less combative position on empowering people with behavioral skills, but for the most part, he has supported the use of prescription medications.-

I like the idea that Thom Hartmann described.- Now, Thom in recent years has been a political talk show host, but before that, he was one of the top-selling authors of books on attention deficit disorder and his model was that people who had ADD were hunters in a farmer's world.-

Maggie Jackson:-Oh yes.- Well, many people have had that theory, yes.-

Rob Kall:-Well, he described it first though.- And afterwards, it was just reinvented at Johns Hopkins.- To me, what's interesting about that is this is a pre-civilization idea.- The people who were the best at surviving in this hunter's world were minimalized in our civilized world because to succeed you have to in some ways shut down the openness to all the things going on, which is what a hunter does.- So, attention is an interesting thing.- And not necessarily having a diffuse attention, being able to look all around you and see all the stuff going on, which is what a hunter needs to be able to do, and then be able to track and focus.- A lot of people with ADD are really good at hyper-focus, like playing video games.- Right?-

Maggie Jackson:-Yes.- Well, there are now considered to be three types of attention.- One is that kind of wakefulness called alerting, sensitivity to your surroundings.- That's likely what the hunter needs.- And we all need to be aware of our surroundings.-

Second, there is focus.- It's called orienting in scientific circles.- That's the spotlight of your mind""the ability to problem solve but also to give you the ability to relate to others.-

Finally there is something called executive attention and sometimes called executive function- That is the ability to plan, to judge, to resolve conflicting information.- So these are actually now considered three different independent types of attention.- You can be focusing on a speaker in a room and yet be half asleep.- They're two different types of attention.- It is really fascinating.-

Scientists are now beginning to understand when attention develops in children, when it kicks in, when are the prime or "sweet spots' of developing the certain types of attention.- And what is the role of parenting.

Rob Kall:-Which kind of attention is eroding?-

Maggie Jackson:-Well, I think, I argue, and there' s no scientific study to prove all of this, but I would argue that we are eroding our...the higher echelon order of all types of attention.- In other words, we're not using our attentional powers well.- Yes, we're somewhat aware of our surroundings.- Yes, certainly we are using our executive attention skills to get through the day at our jobs.- Sure, we can focus on something, you know, a train wreck if we really need to.- But I think that we're not doing it well, because we're allowing ourselves, our attention to be fragmented, to be diffused.- We've sort of moved to the furthest spectrum.

And the other thing that's really important, is, I mentioned awareness of our environment. Well, humans are biologically programmed, they're born to be interrupted because you need to pay attention to what's new in your environment. At the same time, you need to pursue your goals. You need to remember what you're doing. You need to plan for five years, or five hours from now. It's kind of a balancing act. But...

Rob Kall:-That's the name of your column!

Maggie Jackson:-Yes, it is. I do think that we're off-kilter because we're allowing our environment to go off and control our attention. In other words, we're very reactive. It's the new beat, the new ping, the new something. I think that's why people get through the workday and feel that they never got anything done, that they've barely kept their head above water, simply because they're always reacting. In other words, they're always paying attention to what's new in their environment, but are they really able to keep hold of those, especially those deeper, messy gray-area goals that you really do need to be challenged by.-

Rob Kall:-Your forward is by Bill McKibben, who is a well-known and respected environmentalist. He writes how distraction has always been a human condition, but now every force conspires to magnify that inattentiveness. Technology has made distraction ubiquitous; we're almost always in reach of something to fill our brains. And he talks about how this book of yours explores what it means to be human in the early twenty-first century. And that really hit me, because one of my favorite books is by Robert Wolff; the book called, "What It Is to Be Human."

Maggie Jackson:-I haven't heard about that.

Rob Kall:-The book describes his interactions with an indigenous tribal culture in Malaysia that is now gone, destroyed, wiped out by Malaysia's attempt to kind of clear out the forests.- And this was a people that lived in totally the opposite (type of society).- They had no technology, and they were all about sitting quietly, connecting with nature, and with each other.- That's so far from where we've gone.- And Maggie, what's your website?-

Maggie Jackson:-It's Maggie hyphen Jackson dot com.

Rob Kall:-Maggie, you talk in your book about how trust is a factor in all of this.

Maggie Jackson:-Absolutely.

Rob Kall:-How does trust fit in to attention and distraction?

Maggie Jackson:-Well it doesn't seem at all to be connected to attention and distraction. But I was really intrigued by the way the surveillance of societies that we're surrounded by have trickled into the home.- The idea of people having no privacy, people being watched all of the time in a kind of "Big Brother" way, is now absolutely alive and well in homes.-

Families watch each other to an extraordinary degree, and especially parents watch children.- They use GPS, they're putting black boxes in cars, they're spying on every click of the kids' e-mails, etc., etc., etc.- They now have little computer software in school where the parents get a readout of every potato chip or French fry that a kid bought at school that day.- And parents check every single day to see what the kids bought.- It's extraordinary; this is spreading out all over the country.- So, I wonder... that's a kind of hyper-attention, a hyper-attentiveness, in some ways, that's keeping track of kids in a way that's at the other end of the spectrum of attention.- And I think that has everything to do with the lack of bodily togetherness.-

In other words, when we don't come together face-to-face, and especially when we feel that this is a world that we can't control as parents, we feel anxious about the world, then the next step is to spy on children.- And yet trust, and obviously surveillance is don't trust someone who you're spying on, as much as the parents say it's the outside world I don't trust, in a sense, they're giving the message to kids they don't trust them.-

But, what is trust? Well, trust is a risk-taking.- You have to take a risk on someone in order to trust them; you have to not be hyper-vigilant.- And I think that comes back to the idea of the deeper relationship that you were talking about.-

How can we recover depth of relationships?- Well, in some ways, we live in this point-and-click society where everything is seemingly within our control. I think that is one reason...

Rob Kall:-Control. Control is the word that I wanted you to talk about.- Can you compare control versus self-discipline?

Maggie Jackson:-Well I can say that video games are a world, a wonderfully rich, complicated world of control.- You know, control is easy.- The "do-over generation," one Dutch researcher calls it.- In the real world, and I'm speaking about the physical world outside of the digital, you can't control the end point; you really can't.- There are human limitations, there's chance, there's serendipity; it's difficult.- And I think that when we enter in this world of controlling our view of our children and also when we're entering the world of living in video games, or second life, or whatever, we're really trying to escape from what truly are our human limitations.- At an enormous cost, finally, and eventually.

Rob Kall:-Cost?

Maggie Jackson:-Yes, cost. I think that when we as humans can't live with the implications, the repercussions, the consequences of our humanity, then we're really...we're checked out.- We're not really living real life; we're not able to understand that life is circumscribed.- Our choices are limited, etc.- It sounds very philosophical, but I think that the costs are enormous.- And that's the cost of overly counting on virtuality as a kind of a new alternate reality.

Rob Kall:-You know, you're characterizing how these times are in some ways kind of "Asperger-ish."- The disorder or state of mind that's a step before autism, where people kind of avoid other people and they're very self...I don't know how to describe Asperger's.- How would you describe it?

Maggie Jackson:-Well I think Asperger's Syndrome is a high-functioning autism, and I think that it has everything to do with trying to in some ways to control the social encounter.- People feel very uncomfortable with the social encounter and avoid eye contact and can't really deal with all the question marks when you're relating to another human being.- I think those are some of the main forms of Asperger's.-

And here we are, we're talking again about the social relationship, and the depth.- Are we really going deeply with one another?- Doctors interrupt patients, on average, eighteen seconds after a patient begins talking.- A lot of people, I think, anecdotally see the lack of eye contact increasing in the United States, just in public encounters.-

So I think that when parents and kids and people spend very little time with those we live with, dinners, just even face-to-face encounters, are becoming a rare thing in the work place.- So, in that case, the human, physical, face-to-face, bodily, rich form of communication is deteriorating.- It's becoming more rare, and then because it's such a difficult, enormously difficult form of human communication to learn, I think there's a chance that kids aren't really learning how to be with other human beings in a way that...I mean, we can never perfectly do this, but that was the challenge before all of this technology kind of got in the way.

Rob Kall:-And it's our challenge now, because our time is up. Thank you, Maggie.

Maggie Jackson:-Thank you Rob, for having me.

Rob Kall:-It's been a pleasure.

Submitters Bio:

Rob Kall is executive editor, publisher and site architect of, Host of the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show (WNJC 1360 AM), President of Futurehealth, Inc, inventor . He is also published regularly on the

With his experience as architect and founder of a technorati top 100 blog, he is also a new media / social media consultant and trainer for corporations, non-profits, entrepreneurs and authors.

Rob is a frequent Speaker on the bottom up revolution, politics, The art, science and power of story, heroes and the hero's journey, Positive Psychology, Stress, Biofeedback and a wide range of subjects. He is a campaign consultant specializing in tapping the power of stories for issue positioning, stump speeches and debates, and optimizing tapping the power of new media. He recently retired as organizer of several conferences, including StoryCon, the Summit Meeting on the Art, Science and Application of Story and The Winter Brain Meeting on neurofeedback, biofeedback, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology. See more of his articles here and, older ones, here.

To learn more about me and, check out A Voice For Truth - ROB KALL | OM Times Magazine and this article.

And there are Rob's quotes, here.

To Watch me on youtube, having a lively conversation with John Conyers, Chair of the House Judiciary committee, click here Now, wouldn't you like to see me on the political news shows, representing progressives. If so, tell your favorite shows to bring me on and refer them to this youtube video

My radio show, The Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, runs 9-10 PM EST Wednesday evenings, on AM 1360, WNJC and is archived at Or listen to it streaming, live at

Rob also host a health/mind/body/heart/spirit radio show-- the Rob Kall Futurehealth radio show. Check out podcasts from it at

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A few declarations.

-While I'm registered as a Democrat, I consider myself to be a dynamic critic of the Democratic party, just as, well, not quite as much, but almost as much as I am a critic of republicans.

-My articles express my personal opinion, not the opinion of this website.

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