A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention

by Matt Richtel.

Publication date: September 14, 2014
Category: true crime; narrative nonfiction; science journalism

Summary (from the publisher):

From Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Matt Richtel, a brilliant, narrative-driven exploration of technology’s vast influence on the human mind and society, dramatically-told through the lens of a tragic “texting-while-driving” car crash that claimed the lives of two rocket scientists in 2006.

In this ambitious, compelling, and beautifully written book, Matt Richtel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, examines the impact of technology on our lives through the story of Utah college student Reggie Shaw, who killed two scientists while texting and driving. Richtel follows Reggie through the tragedy, the police investigation, his prosecution, and ultimately, his redemption.

In the wake of his experience, Reggie has become a leading advocate against “distracted driving.” Richtel interweaves Reggie’s story with cutting-edge scientific findings regarding human attention and the impact of technology on our brains, proposing solid, practical, and actionable solutions to help manage this crisis individually and as a society.

A propulsive read filled with fascinating, accessible detail, riveting narrative tension, and emotional depth, A Deadly Wandering explores one of the biggest questions of our time—what is all of our technology doing to us?—and provides unsettling and important answers and information we all need.

ScienceThrillers review:

Matt Richtel is a science journalist who covers Silicon Valley for the New York Times. In 2009, he wrote a front page story about distracted driving. The story went viral in part because the subject touches so many of us. Richtel was one of the first to put a mirror in front of us, making us unwillingly recognize the ways in which we have allowed our technology to control us and to put us at risk both physically (while driving) and emotionally (in our relationships). His one story became a series, and a Pulitzer Prize followed.

Richtel is fascinated by our uneasy coexistence with digital connectedness and invasive communication. He has spun this interest and expertise beyond world-class journalism into fiction with several brilliant science thriller novels (see links to my reviews below). Now with the release of A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, Richtel brings his thoughtful, articulate writing to book-length narrative nonfiction.

A Deadly Wandering might change your life.

Most of the words in this book tell the stories of people affected by a horrible car wreck in Utah in 2006. The primary focus is on Reggie Shaw, a 19-year-old Everyman who was texting while driving and crossed the center line, killing two people. In the style of a well-written true crime tale, A Deadly Wandering explores the characters: Reggie, his family, the victims and their families, neighbors in the small community, law enforcement, legislators, judges, and jailers. These stories of tragedy and its aftermath make for a page-turning read.

But Richtel does more than tell the story of the 2006 crash. Using that incident as the example that illustrates the rule, Richtel weaves alternating chapters about the larger story of distracted driving and the even bigger story of our relationship with modern communications technology. With the help of neuroscientists who study the brain and its ability (or inability) to pay attention (some of the most interesting characters in this book), Richtel asks, why is it so hard to lock away the phone when we’re driving? Is social technology addictive? An extreme compulsion? Or simply habit forming?

The author says:

All the tweets and Facebook updates, the emails, the YouTube videos, and texts are not creating themselves. They are enabled by technology, sure. But they are driven by the humans pressing the buttons, asking for a tiny piece of the fractured spotlight.

He cites research that “the motivation to disclose our internal thoughts and knowledge to others” is inherent to our species. We have a deep, primitive desire to communicate. For millennia, our technical ability to give and receive communication was proportional to our brain’s ability to process it. This is no longer the case. Each click, each ping, “gives a little rush, a tiny dopamine squirt,” a narcotic-like pleasure to our brains, but our attention is overwhelmed.

A Deadly Wandering also explores questions of justice and forgiveness, and the emergence of legislation to restrict phone use while driving. Richtel highlights the problem that hands-free cell phone use is no less distracting than holding a phone to your ear, and that automakers are introducing ever more distracting technologies into the cockpits of our cars, and that from a neurological perspective, multitasking is a myth.

After reading this book, I’ve examined my own use of social technology and am approaching not only cell phone use in the car but all my digital interactions with a new trepidation. The message, I think, is one we all pay lip service to but are challenged to act upon: Be fully with the people in your presence. Simplify. And pay attention.

Read the ScienceThrillers reviews of Matt Richtel’s novels:
The Cloud; Floodgate; Devil’s Plaything

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

One Response to A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention

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