Continuous Partial Attention

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I have become much more conscious lately of the omnipresence of Blackberries, iPhones, and other smart phones. (Disclosure, although I am a techie in most realms, I still hold on to my most basic cellphone, in spite of all sorts of incentives to upgrade.) Couple this awareness to the many articles on the web discussing, extolling, and critiquing the use of Twitter, and I land squarely on Linda Stone's concept of continuous partial attention. Here's what she says about it.

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.

. . . Like so many things, in small doses, continuous partial attention can be a very functional behavior. However, in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively. In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we're inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.

Stone sees the positive side of CPA and, implicitly, of all the devices that contribute to it. I am, at the least, skeptical and more often quite critical. Matt May, who's one of my favorite bloggers, sees the idea as elegant (the theme of his book and blog). But he is talking about the idea of Twitter, not its effects from use. And that is what concerns me.

Stone's blog begins with this line, "I believe attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit." I agree completely with the underlying idea, but I would use different words to express this thought. Attention provides visible evidence about what we care about. What we do and how we do it are the best evidence that we are taking care of whatever concerns us at the time. Stone carefully differentiates multi-tasking from CPA.

[CPA] is different from multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We're often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing.

The failure to understand that caring is the most basic quality that makes us human and not just some other living species is, I claim, one of the fundamental roots of unsustainability. The state of world in both human and environmental terms is unsustainable. And while virtually all attention today is placed on dealing with the environmental aspect, I believe that is the human side that must be addressed first. If we do not recover our consciousness of caring as the basis for our cultural life, we will continue to be "havers," not beings, and will always turn to some sort of technological means to deal with everything.

Twitter is exactly one of those means. Stone points to the feeling of being "alive" that Tweets bring. Perhaps, but what sort of aliveness is she talking about? She notes in the last paragraph I quoted that the experiences also produce a feeling of powerlessness. The momentary aliveness is ephemeral, but the powerless sense lasts. I equate feeling alive with the idea of flourishing, and, further, that sustainability is the possibility that we shall flourish for more than some instant. Another way to recognize flourishing is a sense that we are taking care of our multiple domains of caring: self, others, and the world.

CPA runs exactly counter to that. Twitter and all the other systems and devices that flash in and out of our perception contribute to our becoming very good at practicing CPA. But the more we excel at this art, the less we will be able to pay full attention to the real concerns we have, even if we split our attention among several tasks simultaneously. There's still another down side and that is that this kind of practice gets to be addictive. We end up spending more time twittering and less time on productive work. I don't mean just the tasks we deal with at home and work, I mean the challenging work learning who we are as human beings that leads to flourishing.

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