Thoughts on Continuous Partial Attention

Linda Stone auf der DLD-Konferenz in München

usgabe 51
Die Macht unserer ständigen Begleiter

Editorial von Björn Brückerhoff
„Wir gestalten nur eine Übergangsphase“
Gläserner Bürger 2.0
Continuous Partial Attention

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Text: Linda Stone     Illustration: Kristina Schneider  

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Immer mehr Medienkanäle fordern unsere Aufmerksamkeit. Ob SMS-Nachrichten geschrieben, E-Mails gelesen und beantwortet, Nachrichten-Sites durchsucht, Blog-Einträge verfasst und kommentiert oder Wikipedia-Artikel verändert werden wollen wer nichts verpassen kann, muss scheitern. Wer seine Prioritäten nicht angemessen setzt, geht im Strudel unter. Wer seine Aufmerksamkeit so weit teilt, dass alle Kanäle gleichzeitig bedient werden können, muss in einem Zustand landen, den Linda Stone "constant crisis" nennt.

Stone weiß, wovon sie spricht. Mehr als 20 Jahre lang war sie im Top-Management von Computerkonzer
nen tätig. 1986 begann sie ihre Karriere bei Apple, "to help change the world". Sieben Jahre später wechselte sie dann ausgerechnet in die Forschungsabteilung von Microsoft. Sie wirkte an der Gründung der heutigen Social Computing Group (damals Virtual Worlds Group) mit, die sich unter der Leitung des Microsoft-Veteranen Nathan Myhrvold mit der Erforschung des Soziallebens in virtuellen Communities beschäftigte. Von 2000 bis 2002 arbeitete Stone schließlich als Corporate Vice President direkt für Microsoft-CEO Steve Ballmer. Heute schreibt sie Kolumnen für angesehene Zeitungen und Zeitschriften und spricht auf Konferenzen über ihre Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse.

Auf der internationalen Medienkonferenz
Digital Life Design, die Hubert Burda Media im Januar 2007 zum wiederholten Male ausgerichtet hat, sprach Linda Stone über eine der aus ihrer Sicht wichtigsten menschlichen Eigenschaften: die Fähigkeit, die eigene Aufmerksamkeit steuern zu können. Neue Gegenwart freut sich darüber, den Vortrag von Linda Stone in dieser Ausgabe im Originaltext veröffentlichen zu können und dankt Linda Stone für die freundliche Unterstützung.

Linda Stone:
"I want to start with a quick quiz for you.
Raise your hand every time a statement is true for you:

1. I keep all my communication devices on
all the time so I don’t miss anything.

2. I turn my communication devices off
and I don’t care if I miss calls, emails and so forth.

3. The way I currently use computer and communications technologies improves my quality of life.

4. My quality of life is often compromised by technology.

5. Technology sets me free.

6. Technology enslaves me.

For most of us, ALL of these are true. Our world is noisy and we use every tool we have to keep up and to stay on top of everything.

At the same time, there’s a desire in many of us that’s growing – a desire to get to the bottom of things, to enjoy more signal and less noise and to cultivate meaningful relationships rather than the < me and everyone else network >.

We are on the cusp of one Age of Attention and moving into another. We have been in the Age of Continuous Partial Attention for the last twenty years. We are just now entering the Age of Uni-focus. Trends start slowly, then accelerate. The first signs of the shift are starting to show up in this messy transition time. By 2014, we will be in the prime of this Era.

Continuous partial attention is fueled by the urge not to miss anything. Every call, every email, every text message, every blog post, every person wandering by, just might have value, might call us toward the next great opportunity or experience.

Continuous partial attention is different from multi-tasking. The Age of Multi-Tasking preceded the Age of Continuous Partial Attention. Multi-tasking is motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. The multi-tasker gives the same priority to a variety of activities that don’t require much cognitive processing. We’re multi-tasking when we eat lunch, talk on the phone, and file or copy papers at the same time. We’re just being in the business of getting things done. We multi-task to CREATE more opportunity for ourselves – opportunity to DO more, to PLAY more, to CREATE more. We use continuous partial attention to SCAN for opportunity, to connect more, to be a live node in a web of endless possibilities. With every opportunity, we ask, “What can I gain here?”

When William James, defined attention in 1890, in Principles of Psychology, he said that it is taking possession of the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought… it implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.

Today, a commonly used definition of attention is: the act or faculty of attending. We seem to have completely dropped the part about withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. We’re just doing it all.

Continuous partial attention (cpa) is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior. It’s neuro-chemically addictive and it involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We keep a top priority in focus. At the same time, we scan the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities, and if we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? What email just came in? 15 text messages. Blog this. What time is it in Beijing? 19 voicemails.

The artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking. In this state of constant crisis, our adrenalized Fight or Flight mechanism kicks in. This is great when a bear is standing ready to rip us to shreds. How many of those 500 emails a day is a bear? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

Over the last twenty years, we have not only become expert at paying continuous partial attention, we have become skilled in paying – CONTINUOUS continuous partial attention. There are times when CPA is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing. There are times when we can’t seem to shut it off and it’s not the best match. In small doses, continuous partial attention has served us well.

Continuous continuous partial attention, an always-on lifestyle, and the fight or flight response associated with it, sets off a cascade in our bodies, starting with norepinephrin and it’s friend, cortisol, a stress hormone. As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor. That is, it attaches with any receptor site leaving little room for other hormones. As a result, dopamine and seratonin – hormones that help us feel calm and happy – have no where to go. The abundance of cortisol has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep. Consider the success of drugs like Ambien, a non-narcotic sedative-type sleep medication, and anti-depressants, like Prozac. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. We can’t find the off switch -- on our devices or on ourselves. As we begin to consider the impact of this lifestyle, researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and more poorly.

We are beginning to shift away from a desire to be always-on, and moving toward a desire to protect our time, and to experience more meaningful relationships. We are moving from what I call the “I CONNECT” Era and the Age of Continuous Partial Attention and into the “I PROTECT and BELONG Era.” An era, that, over time, will be characterized by Uni-Focus and Presence. The world may continue to be noisy. Our yearning and fulfillment going forward will be more and more likely to come from getting to the bottom of things, from stillness, authenticity, meaningful connection, and a sense of protecting ourselves and being protected. Neo-Luddites Rising! OR… I know how to use the tools and I choose not to right now.

A self-described internet-addicted, blog until she drops, level 60 Troll Priest on World of Warcraft, friend of mine, sent me the following email recently:

I’m sorry I've been so awful about reading and responding to email. I think I'm having a CPA backlash reaction, and have spent most of my time lately doing things like crocheting and photography! Check out my Flickr site to see my crochet projects.

Three years ago, this person was so tethered to her computer that her email response time was generally under 3 minutes. These last few months, it can take weeks to get a response.

Recently, I was with a handful of New York moms. While they all use Blackberries, they had harsh words for excess use of that technology. “Our husbands come home from work, glued to their Blackberries. They don’t talk with us or with our children. They don’t connect with us. And then when we go to bed, they want sex. I don’t think so.” Birth control – an unintended consequence from Research in Motion.

Overwhelm, over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment are the shadow side of our desire to connect and our always-on Age of Attention. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.

These feelings are seeding new longings. The younger generation, in this case, the Millenials, is always at the frontline of new attention behaviors and of the next era. The behaviors emerge, then drift across all generations.

Millenials consider phone calls intrusive. Before you call, IM or text to see if the call is welcome.
Those 42 million iPods sold to date…. Those iPod earbuds…. They say, “Leave me alone. I want my space and I’m in it. I’m taking control of what input comes my way.”

MySpace – it’s a way of feeling connected without having to dedicate a lot of time. Drop in. Drop out. Some of the social network software that preceded MySpace requires more time and more management.

Most daunting to managers of Millenials is the attitude that it’s okay to leave work by 6 pm. That it’s okay to leave, turn the phone off, and have a life. A work to live orientation could ultimately replace the live to work lifestyle.

The always-on lifestyle, with endless opportunities for communication and interaction -- or put another way – endless stimulation – is gradually being replaced with evidence of an emerging desire for exhilaration – specifically, the exhilaration that comes with creation and being creators. Stimulation is all about those things that come at us externally. Exhilaration comes from within.

In the unfolding, we’ll see the <me and everyone else network> replaced by meaningful networks that are like “tribes.” In games like World of Warcraft, players experience meaningful relationships on a new level for multi-player games.

With developments like the Wii and the serious games movement, we’ll also see games evolve from continuous partial attention FIRST PERSON SHOOTERS (FPS) to games like SPORE, games that enhance uni-focus and a sense of presence in the game play. Games that support a “possibility space.” Uni-focus and presence are a soothing follow on to a CPA world.

Consider new technologies like the iPhone and the Wii. Both support direct manipulation. On the iPhone, users “pinch” to re-size photos and “flick” to scroll through a contacts list, using gestures that are very natural. On the Wii, the remote supports natural movements for games like golf and tennis. While continuous partial attention FPS games took us out of our bodies, these new technologies, that support direct manipulation, take us back into our bodies.

While Millenials are at the leading edge of these new attention behaviors, they are not alone in feeling a calling toward protection and protectors. Just as the Era of Connecting and the Age of Continuous Partial Attention define who we are individually and collectively today, The Era of Protection and Belonging and Age of Uni-focus describes who we are becoming.

Everything in nature that works seems to have a cycle – the life cycle of a plant, the seasons – summer, fall, winter, spring. Athletes train with cycles in mind – cycles of high performance, cycles of different types of workouts, periods of rest. Always on doesn’t respect this. And if there is no winter, there is also no spring.

As we move forward, we never totally give up what we integrate from eras past. We simply shift focus and embrace new thoughts of what will bring us that which we have come to long for.

We are moving from asking, “What do I have to gain?” to asking, “What do I have to lose?” These feelings are inspiring us to want to reach for a higher quality of life.

We want to sort through noise effectively to find a meaningful signal. We want DVRs, Netflix, Youtube, and iTunesTV. We want an iPhone. In part, we want it for the visual voicemail that lets us control which messages we listen to, in the order of our choice, without having to listen to all the messages.

We want Google – for now, a trusted technology that we believe protects us from a web so vast we could drown in the over 12 billion pages. We are drawn to the marketing messages and the companies that evoke feelings of trust and safety and a feeling of being protected. Authenticity, trusted authorities, and clear, uncluttered messages are part of this new era.

Since 1965, we have shifted from multi-tasking, and a desire to CREATE opportunity, to continuous partial attention and a desire to SCAN for opportunity, to, now, uni-focus and a desire to DISCERN opportunity.

To discern which opportunities we prefer and to focus on those, will characterize our evolution beyond the always-on lifestyle.

Signs of the new times: Think Apple. Think iPod. At an ArtCenter Design Conference, Jonathan Ive, Apple design guru, described how, with the iPod, his team had a strong and deliberate sense of focus and purpose and a relentless drive to take everything away that was extraneous.

While this kind of thinking has always been at the heart of great design, we’re about to see mass consciousness sync up, creating an opportunity for mass consumption of quality design. Target stores are tapping into this as they work with designers like Michael Graves on product lines for their customers.

Apple Inc. resonates with collective consciousness today in a way that is building market share more rapidly than in the last decade. Apple is well-positioned to do well in the Age of Uni-Focus and Presence.

Uncluttered says QUALITY OF LIFE and is an anti-dote to overwhelm and over-stimulation. For every product, service, feature, and venue -- we’ll ask, does it enhance and improve my quality of life?

With products and services, since 1965, we have evolved from a focus on features, to a focus on ease of use, and now, I believe we’ll care most about products and services that offer us quality of life.

Ease of use has been the mantra of every technology columnist, every product manager in every high tech. company. It’s good. But it’s not good enough.

The new mantra, the new differentiator, the new opportunity for all of us is: improves quality of life. Does this product, service, feature, message -- enhance and improve our quality of life? Does it help us protect, filter, create a meaningful connection? Does it support discernment? Does it support us in using our attention as well and as wisely as we possibly can?

Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. Attention, as expressed by an individual, is at the very core of who we are, what we do, and how we live. Attention, expressed collectively, can define a community, a society, a business, a corporate culture, or a set of products and services.

The sweet spot of any business opportunity is where human desire and the product, service or message meet. We are slowly moving out of the always-on Era of Connecting and the Age of Continuous Partial Attention and into the Era of Protection and Belonging and the Age of Uni-Focus and Presence. The Millenials will be at the frontline, and, over time, most of us will join them in a move toward improving quality of life.

© Linda Stone 2007

Foto: Duncan Davidson

Linda Stone