Pay Attention: Here Comes the Dark Age

The dark age is all the rage at the moment. First Mr Enlightenment himself, Clay Shirky, cheerfully waves adieu to it in a typically absurd Whiggish reading of history. Then the deeply anxious Boston Globe columnist Maggie Jackson argues, in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age that we are on the brink of a new dark age in world history.

Jackson's Distracted is a longer, more academic version of Nick Carr's brilliant "Stoopid" article in the Atlantic and of recent books by Mark Bauerlein, Susan Jacoby and Lee Siegel. The digital age of multi-tasking is eroding our ability to intellectually focus on anything of substance, Jackson suggests. Thus, she argues, Americans of the wired generation are no longer able to synthesize information properly:

They often lack the critical thinking skills that are the bedrock of an informed citizenry and the foundation of scientific and other advancements.

This inability to pay attention is making us medieval, Jackson worries. It's 410 again in her calendar -- the year those unwashed Visigoths, led by Alaric I, took Rome and finally ended the classical age. Referring to Thomas Cahill's idea of a "hinge of history", Jackson thinks we are on the brink of a civilization break-down:

"When a civilization wearies, notes Cahill, a confidence based on order and balance is lost, and without such anchors, people begin to return to an era of shadows and fear. Godlike amid our five hundred television channels and three hundred choices of cereal, are we failing to note the creeping arrival of a time of impermanence and uncertainty. Mesmerized by streams of media-borne candy and numbed by our faith in technology to cure all ills, are we blind to the realization that our society's progress, in important ways, is a shimmering mirage? Consumed by the vast time and energy simply required to survive the ever-increasing complexity of our systems of living, are we missing the slow extinction of our capacity to think and feel and bond deeply? We just might be too busy, wired, split-focused and distracted to notice a return to an era of shadows and fear."

While I'm certainly much more sympathetic to the erudite Jackson than to the cheerfully ignorant Shirky, I am also a bit uncomfortable with using the Middle Ages as a convenient whipping boy for all the sins of our contemporary digital age. Is Jackson saying that the Goths couldn't "think", "feel" or "bond deeply"?  I suspect that the reverse was true. The Goths actually felt more passionately and bonded deeper than the Romans -- thus their military success in 410.

Jackson says that "an epidemic erosion of attention is a sure sign of an impending dark age." But I wonder what happened to attention in the Middle Ages -- that supposed period of darkness between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. In an "era of shadows and fear" how, exactly, are we distracted? By the mythical idea of God? By the great seduction of an afterlife? By an alternative version of reality which defines our identity and moral conduct?

Anyway, if we are to believe Jackson, Second Life was really founded in 410, when Alaric I and his army of Visigoths sacked Rome for the first time in 800 years, thereby switching off the lights in Western Civilization for a millennium.