Book Review: The Organized Mind
“Attention is the most essential resource for any organism,” Daniel Levitin writes quite correctly in his fast-paced and engrossing new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, so it’s the sidecar-riding irony of the whole thing that it suffers from a near-fatal distraction of its own attention throughout.
On the one hand, Levitin lays out the staggering new demands new technology puts on the same old human neurons, with each of us processing 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day in a world with 300 exabytes (300,000,000,000,000,000,000) pieces of human-made information. This hemisphere of his book is unendingly fascinating, despite the occasional oversimplification on his part (or outright flub, as when he says the patently untrue, “In order for something to become encoded as part of your experience, you need to have paid conscious attention to it,” or “Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time”) and despite some very strange misbeliefs, as when he writes:
Humans are, by most biological measures, the most successful species our planet has seen. We have managed to survive in nearly every climate our planet has offered (so far) and the rate of our population expansion exceeds that of any other known organism.
… a passage that would be mighty confusing to any alien xenobiographer who looked at Earth and wanted to talk about, for example, bacteria.
But on the other hand, the book’s other hemisphere – occasionally at odds and sometimes at war with the rest of the enterprise – zeroes in not on physiological and technological aspects of information overload but on a kind of business-seminar motivational angle revolving around how HSP – Highly Successful Persons – handle that overload … and how you can too!
This stuff is fascinating too, but it’s almost a different book and certainly a lesser one, a Harvard Business School-type manual on how to ape the financially successful specifically in order to become financially successful. Levitin gives many examples of HSP and comments consistently on their superior, relaxed focus – a focus made possible by the fact that Highly Successful Persons invariably employ crowds of assistants to filter out distractions and conduct daily attention-triage. Levitin puts a good deal of emphasis on the widespread and deleterious effects of all those distractions, boiling many of them down to added demands most people hardly even realize they’re answering:
Collectively, this is known as shadow work – it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the customer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it …
The Organized Mind would have been considerably stronger if it had focused a bit more tightly on studying its central phenomenon rather than haring off every so often on how you can too! tangents, but even so, this is a mighty strong and fascinating book containing dozens of flashes of insight and dozens of examples of first-rate popular science writing, including one of the best descriptions of evolution by random mutation and natural selection that I’ve ever read:
You have an old house and everything is a bit outdated, but you’re satisfied. You add a room air conditioner during one particularly hot summer. A few years alter, when you have more money, you decide to add a central air-conditioning system. But you don’t removed that room unit in the bedroom – why would you? It might come in handy and it’s already there, bolted to the wall. Then a few years later, you have a catastrophic plumbing problem – pipes burst in the walls. The plumbers need to break open the walls and run new pipes, but your central air-conditioning system is now in the way, where some of the pipes would ideally go. So they run the pipes through the attic, the long way around. This works fine until one particularly cold winter when your uninsulated attack causes your pipes to freeze. These pipes wouldn’t have frozen if you had run them through the walls, which you couldn’t do because of the central air-conditioning. If you had planned all this from the start, you would have done things differently, but you didn’t – you added things one thing at a time, as and when you needed them.
The Organized Mind is full of such great little gems – to use its own freighted calibration, it’s well worth the expenditure of your beleaguered attention.