Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, and the person responsible for coining the term Continuous Partial Attention, gave a much discussed presentation at Supernova. I have been interested in the meme for years (see here).
I am really sorry to have missed Linda, but Nat Torkington posted a great series of notes at O’Reilly Radar. As a result, my comments rely on third party hearsay: so be it.
Her angle in the past has been to suggest that CPA is something to be resisted: an aberrant response to the pressures of remaining connected. It seems that she is moderating her tone, at least a hair:
Linda Stone (as channeled by Nat Tarkington)In 1997 I coined the phrase “continuous partial attention”. For almost two decades, continuous partial attention has been a way of life to cope and keep up with responsibilities and relationships. We’ve stretched our attention bandwidth to upper limits. We think that if tech has a lot of bandwidth then we do, too.
With continuous partial attention we keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges. Continuous partial attention is motivated by a desire not to miss opportunities. We want to ensure our place as a live node on the network, we feel alive when we’re connected. To be busy and to be connected is to be alive.
We’ve been working to maximize opportunities and contacts in our life. So much social networking, so little time. Speed, agility, and connectivity at top of mind. Marketers humming that tune for two decades now.
Now we’re over-stimulated, over-wound, unfulfilled.
CPA as coping mechanism? I maintain that continuous partial attention is an inbuilt aspect of socialized online existence. Linda suggests that CPA is about maximizing opportunities and network connection, but I believe that its a means to understand the world through connection. We rely on our social connections to alert us to what’s important, what’s hot, what’s worth reading. And then, she states that this is all just a dreadful ruse, anyway, since in the end we are left “over-stimulated, over-wound, unfulfilled.”
The alternative to CPA is to revert back to an industrial age, one-thing-at-a-time approach to dealing with the world. That model is fine for supermarket checkout lines, but fails catastrophically in other settings, like hospital emergency rooms.
Continuous partial attention is a meaningful accomodation to the possibilities inherent in operating within the context of a social confederation of other minds, linked through social tools. When examined from the perspective of individual productivity — how many words, widgets, sales have you produced per month — CPA is negative. But in the social universe, you have to measure the productivity of all the connceted members, and productivity of the whole — I maintain — goes up as a function of connectedness. I am willing to slow my roll to answer your question, which allows you and your group to make progress, and you will take my IM the next day, helping me get unstuck on a problem. Someone alerts me to a product announcement, and takes a minute to tell me why they think it’s important: I willingly accept the interrupt, even though it might be thirty minutes before I get back to what I was doing.
To some extent, the question is “what is the highest good?” Is it better to complete the task in hand, or to accept an interrupt? This is contextual, to a great extent: if you are performing brain surgery, the answer is one thing, but if you are updating a project plan, and it’s Stowe on the phone with a question, your answer could be quite different.
The is a real balancing act going on with CPA: we can’t remain sane if we run in circles everytime the leaves move, but we need to be constantly scanning the horizon for prey or predators. And we have to trust the intuition that emerges from the social network. I think that Linda’s sense of unfillment — or her belief that we are — is something like the mythic yearning for a former golden age. She elaborated on her notion of Ages of Attention:
We’re shifting into a new cycle, new set of behaviours and motivations. Attention is dynamic, and there are sociocultural influences that push us to pay attention one way or another. Our use of attention and how it evolves is culturally determined.
I see twenty year cycles. Coming through in the cycles is a tension between collective and individual, and our tendency to take set of beliefs to extreme then it fails us and we seek the opposite.
1945-1965: organization/insitution center of gravity. We paid attention to that which we serve. Lucy paid full attention to phone conversations, Seinfeld does not. Belief that by serving insitution of (marriage|employer|community) we’d leave happy and well-ordered lives. Marketing, command-and-control lifestyle, parents and authority figures, all fit in. Service to institution would bring us satisfaction. We paid full-focus attention to that which served the institution: family, community, marriage. We trusted experts in authority to filter the noise from the signal, to give us the information that matters. As those things failed us, we embraced what we’d suppressed.
1965-1985: me and self-expression. Self and self-expression new center of gravity. Trusted ourselves, entrepreneurial. Apple, Microsoft, Southwest Airlines. Marketers said we have our power to be our best. Fashion broke free. We paid attention to that which created personal opportunities. Paid attention to full-screen software like Word and Excel. Willing to fragment attention if it enhanced our opportunity. Multitasking was an adaptive. Our sense of committment dropped: rising divorce rate, 3 companies/career, etc. Became narcissistic and lonely, reached out for network.
1985-2005: Network center of gravity. Trust network intelligence. Scan for opportunity. Continuous partial attention is a post-multitasking adaptive behaviour. Being connected makes us feel alive. ADD is a dysfunctional variant of continuous partial attention. Continuous partial attention isn’t motivated by productivity, it’s motivated by being connected. MySpace, Friendster, where quantity of connections desirable may make us feel connected, but lack of meaning underscores how promiscuous and how empty this way of life made us feel. Dan Gould: “I quit every social network I was on so I could have dinner with people.”
Her 1945-1965 characterization could go much further back. Ronald Ingelhard’s sociological explorations showed that modern day people were rejecting the large organizations that they had formerly found safety and self-identification through, and that people demanded true voice — unmediated participation in the world. This territory has been deeply mined by Shoshanna Zuboff in the Support Economy (see my discussion, here).
And then, the Summer of Love came along: 1965-1985. According to Linda and Time magazine: the Me generation. But this may be better characterized, once again, as the rise of true voice, the period when the old institutions failed to retain our interest, and people’s self-identity become increasingly disassociated from institutions. Note, however, that there was no Internet, and people had the option of ‘tuning out’ the broadcast media and ‘dropping out’ from institutions, but only the grassroots means to recreate a social order from the bottom up: no social tools, though. I was teargassed at the Capitol, marching against the Vietnam War, so I remember that era fairly well.
And then, Stone’s ‘network center of gravity’: 1985 - 2005. She suggests that we have donned continuous partial attention like bellbottom pants, a faddish reaction to the zeitgeist arising from a networked age. And that we have tried them on — along with flings with Friendster and other null experience social networking apps — and now are turning away from all that froth. To… what?
So now we’re overwhelmed, underfulfilled, seeking meaningful connections. iPod as much about personal space as personalized playlists. Driving question going from ‘what do I have to gain?’ to ‘what do I have to lose?’ Success turning to fear.
Attention captured by marketing messages and leaders who give us a sense of trust, belonging in a meaningful way. Now we long for a quality of life that comes in meaningful connections to friends, colleagues, family that we experience with full-focus attention on relationships, etc.
The next aphrodisiac is committed full-attention focus. In this new area, experiencing this engaged attention is to feel alive. Trusted filters, trusted protectors, trusted concierge, human or technical, removing distractions and managing boundaries, filtering signal from noise, enabling meaningful connections, that make us feel secure, are the opportunity for the next generation. Opportunity will be the tools and technologies to take our power back.
Hmmm. I don’t buy it. First of all, I don’t believe the characterization of being unfulfilled. People are overwhelmed with information, if they operate on an information basis: too many RSS feeds, too many channels, too many choices. That leads to anxiety, yes. But there is never too much meaning, too much insight, too much understanding. So shifting over to a socialized means of filtering the world instead of the information model decreases anxiety: I trust those that I am connected to to help me make sense of the world. And for that to work, I must adopt a communitarian attitude: my time is truly not my own. It is a shared space, a commons in which I interact with my buddies, where we live.
This does not require a return to full attention, one-thing-at-a-time processing of the world. Yes, you rely on trust — trusted contacts — but Linda seems to suggest that we will be able to leave the filtering to others: to trust concierges, protectors, leaders. Personally, I don’t want to yeild sense making to leaders any more.
Despite her millennial appeal to the world weary baby boomers, Linda’s Three Ages of Attention does not really work. Every generation since the advent of real-time communication, starting with the emergence of the telegraph, has become more and more connected, and continuous partial attention is a meaningful and sensible strategy for the world that bits built.
While Stone may feel that the ulimate aphrodesiac is the ability to wrap a Babble device around our entire lives and make the world go away — its a messy, messy world these days, after all — I don’t. I am approaching the ongoing social tools revolution expecting that it will lead to greater connection, deeper involvement with others, and a richer way to perceive the world, but this will continue to come as a direct correllary to my willingness to spread my attention, and to attend to many contacts. Unlike Stone, I don’t think 2005 is the cliff at the end of some 20 year era, but just another stepping stone on the path. I expect more, and more sophisticated, ways to distribute attention in the coming months and years. But then I believe we are processing meaning, not information, and that might be the central difference in our philosophies.