Matt Richtel is the author of the new book A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. It tells the story of a 2006 texting and driving case in Utah, while also examining the science of attention. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, Richtel also has written three novels, including The Cloud. He lives in San Francisco.
Q: You first began to write about the themes in A Deadly Wandering in your Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for The New York Times. What was different (and what was the same) about the process of researching the book?
A: A very appropriate metaphor is seedlings, or saplings, that turned into trees. In those articles, it was one of those journalistic moments that you fantasize about, when we touched on a subject people were ready and willing to hear about, and for some reason it resonated. The newspaper medium has its limits, though this was an ambitious series.
Over the years, I began to realize two things: the science is growing and intensifying and crystallizing. Scientists saw a really rich subject for study. We understand much more than we did at the time. I was looking at driving science. Now I’m looking at technology and neuroscience.
[Also], I stayed in touch with the characters in Utah. The revelations from people in this book, what they experienced, from little lies and self-denial to characters who suffered terrible abuse, to characters who went through this terrible wreck—they were prisms to look through. As I got to know the characters, I saw that it was both an epic and a human drama.
Q: In your book, you describe “a clash between technology and the human brain.” Looking ahead, what do you see happening to people’s attention spans as more new technologies appear?
A: First, I now understand that this has been building for 150 years. People talk about the Terminator being a device we’ve created that becomes sentient, turns, and attacks us. Less science-fiction-ish things [have been] happening—we are nipped away inside by our machines.
In the short term, I’m nervous. These things tap into our needs, our adrenaline system. We are in a period of, if not helplessness, then duress.
Over the long term, we are a remarkable species in our ability to adapt, [such as] the end of serfdom and slavery. The conversations we are having now are going to help us.
One place that I worry is that people who are more educated on the issues are going to learn to use technology to their advantage, to be more creative, more entrepreneurial. People who are not as educated and who succumb to an excessive media diet [will have more problems]. It will create [a new definition for the] haves and have-nots. Those that have the capacity to keep themselves at arm's length are going to be the haves—that definition needs to be flipped on its head.
Q: You alluded to this before--in the book, you alternate chapters looking at a specific case with chapters examining the science behind attention and distractions. How did you come up with that format?
A: My hope is that a core strength of this book is to make it narrative at its core. I can imagine why it’s also a liability to some. We talked about it at length, with my publisher [and others]….
My own feeling…is that my best way to capture readers’ attention is to tell a story, not just about Reggie [the young man involved in the texting and driving case] but about science. It’s the axiom, “Show, don’t tell.” If I could bring the scientists to life, and Reggie’s hunters to life, I had a better shot of getting someone’s attention in an era when attention is wrestled over. I write mystery thrillers as well, and I believe you engage people [with] stories.
Q: That leads to my next question: As someone who’s written fiction and nonfiction, as well as news stories, do you have a preference?
A: When I’m in it, I’m in it. I have a very aggressive muse! I have a children’s book coming out, The Runaway Booger. I write music. When I’m in the thrall of creation, it can take a lot of different forms.
This is my first nonfiction book, and I expected it to be harder. It’s not a work of creativity per se. Every single word has to be true. I’ve been steeped in journalistic ethics for nearly 30 years—you don’t compromise on a single word…
It did tap into the same thrill I feel in writing a story—it was exciting to craft in part because I hoped it would be exciting to read.
Q: You mentioned the children’s book and writing music. Is that what you’re working on now?
A: I have another thriller coming out in February which is a lot of fun. The premise is that there’s a super-smart off-putting tech genius in the Bay Area who’s come up with a computer program that predicts conflict…the computer tells him there will be global nuclear war in three days and counting, but no one believes him. It’s called The Doomsday Equation. A darker thriller follows that.
The Runaway Booger is for little ones. It rhymes, a la Dr. Seuss. It has to do with a father and a son. The mom tells them there are two rules: no playing ball in the house, and no picking your nose. They end up combining the two!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb