In 1909, E.M. Forster published his short story “The Machine Stops” as an antidote to H.G. Wells’ optimistic tales of the future. Set in a world where The Machine (read: the Internet) controls all aspects of life, and a person can communicate with friends through “Plates” (read: Skype) or push a button (read: e-mail) and have their work sent in, there was never any reason to walk the surface of Earth ever again. All a person could need was in his room, where he wasted away, pale and untouched, like Vashti, the story’s subject.

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. 327 pages. Prometheus Books. $25.98. A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. 320 pages. Granta Books.

“There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing…. More…