New! Distracted Featured in "Grace Notes" Exhibit at New York Society Library from January 19 to February 22 - New York City

New Book “Uncertainty’s Edge” Coming in November

I’m excited to announced that my new book, Uncertainty’s Edge, will be published by Prometheus in mid-November this year. The book explores the surprising upsides of being unsure in an age of flux and angst.

From the introduction: “Far from automatically miring us in cognitive paralysis, uncertainty plays an essential role in higher-order thinking, propelling people in challenging times toward good judgement, flexibility, mutual understanding, and heights of creativity. It is the portal to finding your enemy’s humanity, the overlooked lynchpin of superior teamwork, and the mindset most needed in times of flux. `So far as the human stands for anything and is productive and originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes,’ wrote William James. `Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe.’ Yet we now treat this gateway to life’s richest cognitive possibilities as a secret shame.”

It’s time to redeem uncertainty – and discover the state of mind most urgently needed in times of rapid change, social divisions, and tech-inspired closed-mindedness.

The book is the product of multiple years, hundreds of interviews, thousands of miles of travel. To map and track the science of uncertainty, I spent time in operating rooms; in a shelter for homelessness; in robotics labs; on the front lines of a remarkable effort to lower prejudice via political canvassing, and with leaders in psychological, neuroscientific, sociological and other sciences.

Stay posted! Just as Distracted sparked a global conversation on the need to reclaim our attention so too I hope that Uncertainty’s Edge will highlight an overlooked and misunderstood turn of mind that is a source of human flourishing.

The Upsides of Uncertainty – Part II

As we continue to grapple with a fast-evolving virus, extreme fall-out from climate change, and the resulting social divisions, uncertainty remains in the news and on people’s minds. And our scorn, fear, and dread of this deeply human mindset is clear. I hear laments from friends and see almost-daily headlines riddled with fear of the unknown. Being uncertain is tantamount to weakness in an era that worships knowing at a click.

That’s why I’m writing a book that offers a full portrait of this state of mind, its upsides, workings, nature and many expressions. When we at last understand this critical mindset, we can become better leaders, students, citizens, and social beings. For how we approach uncertainty is a telling barometer of how we approach change, complexity, and one another.

Along with the anxiety, fear, and scorn that uncertainty invokes, however, there is curiosity about this inescapable facet of the human condition. I gained a glimpse of this hunger to understand uncertainty when I wrote a long essay on its upsides in the Boston Globe‘s Ideas section earlier this year. I was happily shocked at the global reception to the piece.

Here are just a few of the ways in which the article, as the Globe said, “struck a chord with readers.” A most-emailed article for most of Inauguration week, the piece was shared widely on social media and inspired an NPR segment and an interview on BBC’s Spanish-language service. It was reprinted in French and Dutch news magazines, named a “Best of the Foreign Press 2021” by Le Monde group’s Courrier International, and featured in Nature’s daily briefing of top science news. The article is now being used in courses, including a class on preventing violence for incarcerated men. This is heartening. By skillfully seeking the unknown we become more curious, open-minded, nuanced thinkers. No aspect of human cognition could be more important today.

Please share this post, and stay tuned for more writings on uncertainty in the coming year!

The Cognitive Upsides of Uncertainty

Today uncertainty is a keystone, a mantra, a lament of our times, yet few understand the critical role that epistemic or psychological uncertainty plays in our cognitive lives. Being unsure, ie not-knowing, is a gadfly to higher-order thinking, a stepping stone to resilience, and a lever to finding the tempo and space we need to ponder and muse! My recent Boston Globe essay on this topic went viral around the world. It was featured as a “Best of the Foreign Press” by Le Monde’s Courrier weekly magazine and headlined as top science news by Nature Briefing, a daily round-up of the world’s best science journalism. The story “struck a chord with readers,” who called the article “wise and courageous” and “powerful and provocative,” the Boston Globe noted.

An Honor and A Legacy…

Thrilled! I am honored the 2018 edition of Distracted is the winner of the Media Ecology Association’s 2020 Dorothy Lee Award, one of the most prestigious book awards for works exploring technology and culture. Past winners include New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and UCLA media theorist Peter Lunenfeld.

In these challenging times, it’s important to keep front-burner the huge impact of technology and media on our lives, habits of mind, and social ties. Just one example: even a brief bit of online searching makes people less willing to struggle with a complex problem and also leads them to think that they know more than they actually do, studies show. Technology is our ether and our lifeline yet it’s a huge mistake to lose sight of its often-invisible cultural and psychological effects, an influence that’s deepening as hours online ratchet up during the pandemic.

You can find no better resource for keeping up to date about these issues than the work of the Media Ecology Association, a global not-for-profit association of scholars and practitioners whose work tech’s impact at all levels from individual thought to the planet as a whole.

One last note: I am tremendously honored and inspired that the book award for Distracted is named for Dorothy D. Lee (1905-1975), a pioneering cultural anthropologist who studied Native American culture and also questions of human autonomy and equality of opportunity. Through her long-time teaching at Harvard and Vassar and her books such as Freedom and Culture she was prescient in attacking the idea widely held in her day that affluent cultures are better off or superior to lower-income societies. And importantly she warned that scientific advances, as important as they are, can dehumanize people. “I am living in a society that is willing to lose its humanness,” she said in a lecture at Harvard in 1961.

Of Media as an Ecology and the Morals of It All…

It’s easy to ignore the drumroll of scientific findings that reveal our own guilt in instigating the increasingly plagues of extreme weather. It’s easy to think of rising floods, temperatures, and pollution as far removed from our daily habits of idling the car to keep it warm or cool; running the AC when not really needed; taking yet another plastic bag home from the store. Yet these tiny actions are indeed directly connected to the state of the planet today. Unless we begin living this connectivity in full force, we will bit by bit each and every one of us ruin our habitat. We can no longer pretend that climate change is anything but a moral game.

Ecology as an ethical issue – that’s also exactly how we should be thinking about technology today.

Our relentless networks of buzzing devices; the human pace of social relations and information search now transformed by systems built upon speed and disjuncture; the viral and unthinking nature of sharing; all these facets of technology underscore its ecological nature.

There is no off-button, even when we power down or step off the grid; the wall of expectation awaits us even before we connect back in. Experiences as simple as sharing a meal together are radically changed by various people’s degree of immersion into a vast invisible ecology. And above all, these vast tech webs that increasingly constitute daily life are woven from tiny daily human decisions. Our actions greatly matter, both in the realms of biological Nature or the new ecosystem of technology.

This is why the broken systems of the Internet Age demand an urgent ethical reckoning from us. We can only push back on the online hate, the loneliness, the untruths and other problems plaguing this era by taking moral responsibility for our actions online – as designers, consumers, creators and legislators. Each and every post, share, or click – and each time as well that we ignore a communication that warrants a response – should inspire us to pause and consider the moral side of our actions.

By thinking about the morality of an ecology, we can begin to see the impact on Earth of this bit of plastic or that decision to drive. We can start to wake up to the effect on Humanity of this impulsive tweet or that decision to share a rumor or lie. This is the brilliance of the small.

What I’ve Learned: Three Tips for Reclaiming Focus that Might Surprise You

Here’s Part III of my recent interview with one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, Rob Hopkins, about the  fragmentation of attention in modern life. In this excerpt, I talk about the three ways that I personally guard and nurture my capacity for focus. Some of my best practices might surprise you!

Hopkins: I wondered, having done all this research, and having been living with this stuff for several years longer than most people, and being really aware of the impacts of the technologies that you write about, what changes it’s led to in your own life in relationship to those technologies?

Jackson: That’s a very good question.  Well, first of all, I zealously guard opportunities for quiet, full focus, and thinking. And one reason that I do so, is that I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of “getting things done,” ticking off the boxes, jumping from task to task, while avoiding the hard problems, the messy difficult aspirations of our lives. We define productivity in a very narrow way. Hyper-busyness is something that our culture reveres, and yet sages from Aquinas to the Buddha warn that this kind of lifestyle inspires us to sidestep the most difficult problems of life.

But believe me I still struggle with the right balance – how to interact with this new world of social media and hyper-connectivity and avalanches of instant-access information yet protect times for deep human connection and for doing justice to the messy complex problems that face us.

Just last fall one of my daughters, who’s in college a thousand miles from our home, was ill. I took time from work and stayed with her for some weeks, but when I returned home, I began checking in with her more often to make sure that she was getting the right care. Yet now she is strong and healthy and I’m still trying to battle the habit of checking my phone multiple times a day! The urge is so strong! Every time I take a small break when I’m in the library, or working at home, I just have the urge to pull it out of my pocket, as I had to do for many months. I’m battling this, and yet it’s difficult to pull back and begin to recover time for uninterrupted thinking and focus.

Second, to cope with our “blooming buzzing world,” I also try to do different sorts of work in different physical locations. At home, I do research, searching for scientific papers or studies, interviewing people for my books and articles. It’s a busy kind of mindset. To think deeply, read carefully and to write, I go to a Library where I intentionally do not connect to the Internet, or I retreat to our house in the country, where I am alone for days and can inhabit the space of whatever problem I am working on.

Third, the temptation to fracture our attention and stunt our thinking is also a social challenge. Paying attention fully to one another is a precious and fragile process, especially today.

For instance, I often talk with my husband about my book and whether we do so by phone or in person, there are tensions related to how each one of us interprets the act of paying attention. When I’m asking for his feedback on my writing or evolving ideas, he’ll often start puttering around the house, cooking or cleaning up. He insists that he’s still paying attention, and yet I think he’s not fully present at a crucial moment for me. My view is that these moments when we’re really talking about something that matters are rare and precious, so why do anything that might take away from the possibility for full connection? It’s a difficult call.

I once interviewed a UCLA anthropologist who is a MacArthur Fellow and expert on Americans’ hyper-busy family lives. I will never forget one of her comments to me: “Will we look back someday and say, we could have been having a conversation?”  That really stuck with me. So often we could have been having a conversation rather than sitting side by side, hardly present to one another, splitting our focus.

So here are my tips for staying focus: guard our opportunities to pay attention, use the environment; tailor where we work and think to what kinds of work needs to be done; and don’t forget that attention is a fragile social challenge – be empathic and a good listener!

The Hidden Costs of Multitasking

Recently, I did an interview with one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, Rob Hopkins, about the  fragmentation of attention in modern life. Hopkins is part of a growing wave of green thinkers who rightly worry about how technology is affecting our ability to solve big-picture problems such as climate change. Here’s a second excerpt from our wide-ranging  interview, which you can read or listen to on his great website, “Imagination Taking Power.”

Hopkins: I didn’t have email until maybe 13 years ago, Twitter until maybe 7 years ago, Facebook just a few years ago.  If we were to say this has been a 20 year experiment on a massive, massive scale, how would you summarize the interim findings of that experiment?”

Jackson: Well that’s a very big question!  Currently as I release a new updated edition of my Distracted book, I’m thinking a lot about distraction and how that affects people in new ways.

We often define distraction as being pulled to something secondary, but a lesser-known definition involves being pulled in pieces, being fragmented. That certainly describes life on- and off-line today.

And research shows that when people are avid multi-taskers, when their attention is splintered and abbreviated they actually are shown to have less ability to discern what’s trivial and what’s relevant in their environments.

Even more importantly, when we are jumping from task to task or person to person, we may be undermining our ability to be cognitively flexible, which is a core skill of creativity and problem-solving. In other words, studies show that when people are multi-tasking, they can absorb new information, they can learn, but they encode and store knowledge in more shallow ways, actually using different parts of their brain than if they were paying full attention. As a result, the new knowledge is less assimilated with other stored knowledge and so is less available for transfer to novel situations.

For example, if you multitask your way through your math homework, you can solve the kind of math problem that you studied, but you likely can’t tackle a related but different kind of math problem. Or the surgeon who multitasked her way through med school might be able to fix a routine problem that arises in the operating room, but may be flummoxed when a new, rare complication arises.

I’ve had professors tell me that because kids are multi-tasking their way through an introductory college class, they’ll get to the second level psychology or history class, and it’s as if they hadn’t even taken the first course. They have learned the material in shallow ways.

Additional research shows that the presence of a cell phone, even if it’s silent and turned off, unconsciously siphons our attention away from the moment at hand, so we’re less focused. But as well, we become less able to think in flexible ways. The presence of the phone, beckoning to us even unconsciously, lowers fluid intelligence, which is described as the ability to interpret and solve unfamiliar problems.  We simply don’t have the capacity to multitask and think nimbly!

So, we are beginning to discover that our habits of mind and our technologies may be making us less discerning and flexible cognitively – skills that are crucial to imagination and higher-order thinking.  That’s alarming and could be linked to the kind of tribalism and risk aversion that we see so often today.

The second assessment I would make about technology as a social experiment is that the instantaneity of information is being shown to undermine our willingness to think in complex ways. And that’s very damaging to our capacity to imagine.

Studies both at Yale and Harvard show that a brief online search for information, just a bit of googling, makes people less willing later to wrestle with a complex problem. Their “need for cognition,” a measure of one’s willingness to struggle with a problem and see it through, drops dramatically after searching online. As well, a bit of searching leads to a kind of hubris; we begin to think that we know more than we actually do. People begin to over-estimate their ability to answer similar type of questions without the computer.

Why? Scientists believe that when information is so instant, we begin to think that answers are just there for the plucking, that “knowing” is easy. One researcher who’s been involved in this work says, “We never have to face our ignorance online.”

What are the implications of this? In our current culture, “knowing” is becoming something brief, perfunctory, neat, packaged, and easily accessible. Yet complex murky problems demand firstly the willingness not to know, to understand that the time for ease in thinking has ended and the real work of reflective cognition must begin.

And second, difficult problems demand tenacity, a willingness to struggle and connect and reflect on the problem and its possible solutions and move beyond the first answer that springs to mind. This is when we must extricate ourselves from automaticity in thinking and call consciously upon the side of ourselves that can decouple from tried-and-true answers, gather more information, test possibilities, and build new understanding. Much of this cognition demands both flexibility and a willingness to grapple with the unknown.

Just Hand-Wringing? Why the Excesses of Technology Need Watching

In 2018, I did an interview with one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, Rob Hopkins, about the  fragmentation of attention in modern life. At the time, Hopkins was exploring an overlooked hurdle to solving global warming – our waning ability to think well and even to muster the creativity needed to imagine and shape a better future. In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing excerpts from our wide-ranging  interview, which you can read or listen to on his great website, “Imagination Taking Power.”

Hopkins: What is qualitatively different about the kind of impacts we’re seeing in terms of attention now?

Jackson: How do we know what is different, what has truly changed in our lives?  What’s better, what’s worse?  Are our concerns about technology and distraction just the kind of handwringing that we have always seen when things change?  I have two answers to that question.  First, the totality of what we’re dealing with is so much greater.  Teens are on average exposed to nearly six hours of non-print media a day, and a significant minority experience nearly 8 hours of media a day.  So while media and technology were just a slice of life in the past, now they are a constant. They are the reality. We inhabit the virtual world in disproportionate measure to the physical, and that shift has taken just a generation to unfold.

However, it’s important to note secondly that we are getting a better handle scientifically on the impact of these changes, especially cognitively. We have strong correlational evidence linking time spent on smartphones or online to lowered well-being in children and declining empathy among young adults. As well, steep declines in children’s and adult’s capacity to imagine, persist in problem-solving, and reason coincide with recent decades of rapid technological penetration. This is important. We don’t have the full picture but we are beginning to understand the effect of technology on our lives and on our minds.

Certainly we should remain aware of the human tendency to yearn for the familiar and to look nostalgically back at the past.  But the bottom line is that we have to solve the problems of our day, and there are just too many signs that digital living in its current forms raises red flags. For instance, the ability of Americans from kindergarten to adulthood to elaborate on a problem, to put flesh on an idea, for instance, has dropped by 40 percent since the 1980s, and the most steep drop has occurred in the years since technology came to play such a dominant role in our lives.

There are warning bells, and just as with climate change, we can wait until all the t’s are crossed and I’s are dotted on the evidence or we can act to solve the problems of our day, using the best possible assessments available to us at this time.

My Appearance on Italy’s Top Investigative News Show

Presa-Diretta – Maggie Jackson Interview – from Iperconnessi – Oct. 15, 2018
Narrator: “Nine years ago, when we were full of enthusiasm about the arrival of smart phones, Maggie Jackson, working for the Boston Globe, the major newspaper in Boston, wrote a prophetic book, which has just been republished, about distraction and its impact on a society that is constantly connected.”
Jackson: “Distraction is not just about being pushed toward something irrelevant, but also about life exploding into a thousand pieces, and I think this is the sense of our distraction today. We skip from one thing to another, no longer able to understand what is important and what is not. We have created a society that rewards only what is easy and comfortable. But when we have to resolve a difficult issue or answer a complex question, that requires the use of a part of us that is no longer functional in this ‘online world.’ We only see the advantage of having all this information at our disposal. The idea that we have access to immediate information, leaves the impression that information is easy. Everything is downloadable. As one scientist says, “Online you don’t have to face your ignorance.” You never have to say ‘I don’t know.’ You don’t have to be humble any more. But humility is the starting point for learning. To open yourself up to the new is the only way to reach the most optimal answer.”

Jackson: “When you live without paying attention to others, you basically regress to a  more primitive form of thinking, the stereotyping and quick assumptions that make you intolerant and filled with prejudice. The quick takeaway is that you form simplistic categorizations because it’s much easier to hate than to understand. I believe that this culture of distraction leads you quite directly to fascism, to authoritarian cultures, and this, today, is the real danger.”

PresaDiretta Host:  “Okay, so, if you find it too much to attribute even the crisis facing democracy to smartphones, I understand, but in reality the reflections of the writer Maggie Jackson should not be taken literally. What she is telling us is that when everything passes through a smartphone, when political thinking is exhausted and is reduced to the 280 characters of Twitter, when the number of “likes” begin to drive complex political choices, a drift to authoritarianism is closer than its seems today.

The Costs of Instantaneity

Are we using our technologies wisely?

That’s one of the points that I discussed recently in an interview for the intriguing new blog Human-Autonomy Sciences, curated by two leading psychology researchers on human-machine interaction, Clemson University’s Richard Pak and Microsoft Senior Design Research Manager Arathi Sethumadhavan.

Here is an excerpt from our e-conversation:

Pak — What does the future of human relationships with technology: good, bad, or ugly?

Jackson — The essential question is: will our technologies help us flourish? The potential – the wondrous abundance, the speed of delivery, the possibility for augmenting the human or inspiring new art forms – is certainly there. But I would argue that at the moment we aren’t for the most part using these tools wisely, mostly because we aren’t doing enough to understand technology’s costs, benefits, and implications.

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of technology’s main characteristics: instantaneity. When information is instant, answers begin to seem so, too. After a brief dose of online searching, people become significantly less willing to struggle with complex problems; their “need for cognition” drops even as they begin to overestimate their ability to know. (The findings echo the well-documented “automation effect,” in which humans stop trying to get better at their jobs when working closely with machines, such as automated cockpits.) In other experiments, people on average ranked themselves far better at locating information than at thinking through a problem themselves.

Overall, the instantaneity that is so commonplace today may shift our ideas about what human cognition can be. I see signs that people have less faith in their own mental capacities, as well as less desire to do the hard work of deliberation. Their faith increasingly instead lies with technology. These trends will affect a broad range of future activities, such as whether or not people can manage a driverless car gone awry or even think it’s their role to do so; whether or not they any longer recognize the value of “inefficient” cognitive states of mind such as daydreaming, or whether or not they have the tenacity to push beyond the surface understanding of a problem on their own. Socially, similar risks are raised by instant access to relationships – whether to a friend on social media or to a companion robot that’s always beside a child or elder. Suddenly the awkwardness of depth need no longer trouble us as humans!

These are the kinds of questions that we urgently need to be asking across society in order to harness technology’s powers well. We need to ask better questions about the unintended consequences and the costs/benefits of instantaneity, or of gaining knowledge from essentially template-based formats. We need to be vigilant in understanding how humans may be changed when technology becomes their nursemaid, coach, teacher, companion.

Recently, an interview with the singer Taylor Goldsmith of the LA rock band Dawes caught my eye. The theme of the band’s latest album, Passwords, is hacking, surveillance and espionage. “I recognize what modern technology serves,” he told the New York Times. “I’m just saying, ‘let’s have more of a conversation about it.’”

Well, there is a growing global conversation about technology’s effects on humanity, as well there should be. But we need to do far more to truly understand and so better shape our relations with technology. That should mean far more robust schooling of children in information literacy, the market-driven nature of the Net, and in general critical thinking skills. That should mean training developers to become more accountable to users, perhaps by trying to visualize more completely the unintended consequences of their creations. It certainly must mean becoming more measured in our own personal attitudes; we all too often still gravitate to exclusively dystopian or utopian viewpoints on technology.

Will we have good, bad, or ugly future relations to technology? At best, we’ll have all of the above. But at the moment, I believe that we are allowing technology in its present forms to do far more to diminish human capabilities than to augment them. By better understanding technology, we can avert this frightening scenario.