Supernova 2005: Attention

You need to read this. Linda Stone just gave a fantastic address on what we pay attention to and what drives human use of software. She is the coup of the conference: if I could grab any of the conference speakers for our conferences, it would be her–I’ve been trying for years but her schedule has never lined up with ours. Here are my near-verbatim notes from her talk:

Pop quiz. It’s okay to answer “yes” to a question even if you’re contradicting an earlier answer:

  • Technology has improved my life
  • Technology has harmed my quality of life
  • I pay full attention to people when they talk to me, when I am in meetings, when I work
  • I pay partial attention to what I’m doing and I’m scanning my devices or software for other inputs
  • Technology sets me free
  • Technology enslaves me

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.

Are you beginning to ignore call-waiting? At some companies,
email-free Fridays are taking off. Debby O’Halloran article
excerpt: casual office phenomenon. Turning into a generation of email
junkies. Email creates way of doing business but a new headache.
Nestle Rowntree first company in Britain to do email-free Fridays. Email
banned on Friday to see whether employees will be more creative when
they discuss things face-to-face.

Another consequence of email culture is that we don’t make decisions:
send emails around. Saw an increasing tendency for that in latter
years at Microsoft. At once company, CEO requires people going into a
meeting to drop Blackberrys, cellphones, etc. at door: disarm.

Bill Gates has three types of meetings: free-for-all, mixed (sitting
at back indicates paying half-attention), and full (if you’re sitting
at the table, you focus on what’s going on).

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.”

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.