How many browser tabs do you have open right now? On most work days, I’m switching between at least eight. According to journalist Maggie Jackson, I’m not alone: Apparently, the average office worker changes tasks every three minutes. Jackson is the author of this year’s Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, and as the title suggests, she’s a bit worried about our tendency to divide our attention. In a recent interview with Columbia Journalism Review, she talks about how this distraction affects our ability to process the news.
Namely, it becomes difficult to fully absorb the news. We only process stories superficially when we try to juggle so many—we fail to “create knowledge out of data.” Jackson marshals plenty of studies to back up her claims, like one that found that people remember 10 percent fewer of a newsperson’s words when there’s a crawl on the TV screen. But she’s at her most compelling when she characterizes the problem and its effects in her own words.
For Jackson, the abundance of news stories is not necessarily the main problem, and neither is the profusion of technologies designed to get us news faster. The issue is the pride we take in our ability to multitask—we’ve “elevated it to a national pastime” and treat it “as a value system.”
The beauty of her analysis is that it allows us some room to change. We can’t really alter the fact that we live in an information economy, but we have some choice in our reactions to it. Jackson notes that researchers are just recently beginning to understand the science of attention, and she’s optimistic that their work will help us find ways to stay focused in a world that promotes distraction.
You can watch more of the interview below. Also check out CJR's feature on journalism and information overload here.