ETech: Linda Stone

Linda Stone gave a fantastic talk at ETech, continuing to build out her thesis on the changing ways we pay attention. Her talk began by orienting the audience in the same way as her 2005 Supernova talk, but it then went into new territory. Continuous partial attention is neither good nor bad, it just is. And like all evolved techniques, there are situations in which it’s useful and situations in which it’s a hindrance. Her thoughts on the new strategies we’re building were, with Clay’s magnificent talk, the highlights of the conference for me.

Attention: The Real Aphrodisiac / ETech Keynote by Linda Stone, 7 March 2006

I’d like to check in with you all on your experience of the anytime, anywhere, any place, always on lifestyle. If a statement is true for you, please RAISE your hand. If a contradictory statement is also true for you, please RAISE your hand for that, as well.

1. When people talk to me, I really pay attention.

2. When people talk to me, I pay partial attention, so I can be aware of other things coming up—my phone, Blackberry, other people, and so on.

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.

A principle of Aikido is that the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. The criteria for a profound truth is that it’s true for everyone. We have been operating in an increasingly noisy world and taking on the job of staying on top of everything. We’re now beginning to shift—the world may continue to be noisy, but, our yearning and fulfillment are more likely to come from getting to the bottom of things, from stillness, and from opportunities for meaningful connection. The sweet spot of opportunity for those of us in high tech, is the meeting of human desire and technology advance.

Unix offered talk, IM technology to the scientific community, almost 30 years before ICQ showed up. The powerful combination of human desire, in this case a desire to connect, and a well-timed technology caused thousands of people to sign up for ICQ every week.

The sweet spot of opportunity for us is the meeting of human desire and technology advance.

What is continuous partial attention?

In 1998, I coined this phrase. I remember a time, early on, when I talked about continuous partial attention at a conference. Way back then, I was working in Microsoft Research. Someone in the audience got up and very angrily declared, “First Microsoft destroys our lives with Windows and now Microsoft is further destroying our lives by messing with our attention?!”

Continuous partial attention was not an evil post-Windows Microsoft plot. It is just happening and has been happening, building, evolving, and getting refined to a high art over these last 20 years—give or take. Is it good? Is it bad? It just IS. It helps us. It hurts us. It’s an adaptive behavior and we are actually on the way to adapting our way beyond it.

Continuous partial attention has been a way of life for many of us. It’s a post multi-tasking behavior. 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 give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task—we stir the soup, talk on the phone, notice the great homework little Rael brought home, answer the door, and so on. We get as many things done at one time as we possibly can.

In the case of continuous partial attention, we are motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. We want to connect, we want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities—activities or people—in any given moment. An example of continuous partial attention—you are having lunch with Tim O’Reilly. Ray Ozzie calls him. Sorry. Ray just might be the bigger opportunity for Tim in that moment. He’ll catch you when he’s done. But since when did it become acceptable to pick up the phone in the middle of a lunch with someone? In the last 10-20 years, give or take. Trends are slower at the beginning and then they accelerate. Continuous partial attention became a strategy for effectively scanning for opportunity. Didn’t we used to say—”I’ll be at lunch from noon to 2. How about we talk after 2?” Have you ever been at a lunch where you picked up a call, then the person you’re lunching with picked up a call, then you never quite got back in sync through the whole lunch—you both spent your time together witnessing each other’s phone calls?

In the all time, full out, golden days of continuous partial attention, it was not unusual for people to enter a meeting and spend the time emailing, sending SMS messages and, other than a vague presence of a physical entity, the attention was anywhere but in the physical meeting room.

In order to cope, to keep up with responsibilities and relationships, we stretched our attention bandwidth to its upper limits. It’s as if we expected our personal bandwidth to keep up with the ever increasing bandwidth that technology offered. Scoble—reads 1500 blogs a day. Most of the people in this room—upwards of 350 emails a day. To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important—to us, in that moment,—emerges. Always motivated by a desire not to miss opportunities and by a desire to be a live node on the network. To be alive is to be busy and connected.

With every opportunity, we asked, “What can be gained here?”

Continuous partial attention fits into a larger context, a larger set of patterns. I’ll apologize in advance for making some generalizations. Generalizations are useful and limited at the same time.

My theory is this. We operate with a sort of collective sense of an ideal. Some of you might recall the ’60’s. For a moment, consider those years, 1965-1985—Sally Fields was the Flying Nun, fashion ranged from mini-skirts to combat boots and fatigues, OUR BODIES, OUR SELVES was published, Southwest Airlines, the Gap, Apple and Microsoft were founded and male hair seemed to be longer than ever before. It was an era of self-expression. Me, me, me and Marlo Thomas’ FREE TO BE ME.

The center of gravity was me, me, me. We trusted ourselves. We focused on personal productivity and companies like Apple and Microsoft gave us the “power to be our best.” Entrepreneurialism flourished. The divorce rate increased—if it isn’t good for me, why am I doing it? Mom took aerobics classes and left little Rael milk and cookies and gave him a key to wear around his neck so he could get into the house after school. Children began to take an unprecedented number of self-improvement classes—karate, music, sports, flower arranging, tap dancing—we were all about achieving our full potential and creating opportunities for ourselves.

We gave our full focus attention to those things that enhanced our abilities to create opportunities for ourselves. We multi-tasked to increase our productivity. The full screen interfaces sported by PC and Mac applications were just dandy in a world ruled by productivity.

From 1965-1985, that collective ideal was to value self-expression and creativity above all else. We evolved with this ideal as a guiding principle. Being a species skilled at taking things to extremes, we took this ideal to an extreme and found ourselves yearning for that which was sacrificed in pursuit of the ideal.

In short—if you’re all about self-expression, it’s likely that you will become narcissistic and lonely. It’s also probable that you would begin to yearn for what’s missing—in this case, connection to others, a sense of being part of something larger.

Welcome to 1985-2005. The era of connecting. The network is the center of gravity. We trust network and collective intelligence. We move from valuing productivity to valuing communication. And communication technologies flourish.

We evolve from entrepreneurialism to entrepreneurialism with strong alliances and affiliations—eBay, Amazon. Micro-finance models like Gramin Phone and Gramin Bank, after many, many years, finally really took off. We played Battleships in the ’70’s and we played Diplomacy in the ’90’s. Play dates replaced many of the violin and dancing lessons from the previous era. It was all about connecting and being part of a network.

Our new new thing was scanning for opportunity. Remember how surprised and not surprised we were when a group of successful Yahoo! employees left stock and opportunity on the table to go start epinions? To succeed meant to make the most of every connection, activity, and opportunity. In the early days of Friendster, the bar room boast was, “I have 3000 friends.” It wasn’t unusual to go to a party and to see lots of people talking on their cell phones. We were everywhere except where we actually were physically.

For those of you who think that you are witnessing a 50 year old’s meltdown, consider this—a 20-something said to me recently, “Linda, I quit every social network I was on so I could actually have dinner with people.” When I speak about continuous partial attention to groups of young people, they resonate, they beg for strategies—they want a better quality of life. This 24/7 thing isn’t feeling so good and more and more people want to feel better.

One clever CEO began to ask that employees disarm at the door when they came in to meetings—people had to drop all weapons of communication—computers, phones, pagers, Blackberries, you name it. Another CEO said, “Well, we have different types of meetings. If it’s a big meeting where information is being presented, and you’re sitting in the back, you can do email OR pay attention. If it’s a smaller meeting and we’re trying to get a decision made, laptops are closed.”

This always on, anywhere, anytime, any place era has created an artificial sense of constant crisis. What happens to mammals in a state of constant crisis—the adrenalized Fight or Flight mechanism kicks in. It’s great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? Or are they mostly mice? Is everything really such an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

We stop breathing, except shallowly. We don’t sleep well. Is everyone here sleeping well? Blackberry under the pillow, right?

Continuous partial attention, anytime, anywhere, any place technologies, the era of connect, connect, connect, is contributing to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and a sense of being unfulfilled.

Another pendulum shift is inevitable. Due to the 24/7, on, on, on lifestyle, new desires are beginning to surface.

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.

At the moment, we use every technology at our disposal to communicate or to make ourselves easily accessible to be communicated to.

Take Email—a communication technology of choice used for every type of communication. Consider how effective email is for decision making or for crisis management. NOT. Yet, it’s still used for those types of communication—even after all these years. WHY? It’s OUR opportunity to come up with new technologies that are better for that or to, at least, stop using email in situations where it’s such a poor match.

Wikis are better for brainstorming. I.M. is better for making a plan. Telephones and IM may be better for crisis management.

Communication ranges from synchronous to asynchronous and from high bandwidth/resolution to low bandwidth/resolution. Every type of communication from conflict resolution to crisis management to planning to information sharing falls most naturally somewhere on that grid. Conflict resolution is best done synchronously and in high bandwidth (eg, face to face). Crisis management is best done synchronously at any bandwidth from high to low. Information sharing can easily be done asynchronously, and often in low bandwidth.

With dangerous tools, like power saws and chipper shredders, we get instructions on how to use them without hurting ourselves and others. Is it time for some guidelines on how/when/where each of these communication technologies is best used? Email is an attention chipper shredder.

We have so many powerful technologies—many of these, thanks to the alpha geek genius gathered in this room. And at the same time as we celebrate these powerful technologies, we feel increasingly powerless in our lives.

Which is why, just as we made a shift from productivity—all about me—self-expression in 1965-1985 to connect, connect, connect and the network as the center of gravity from 1985-2005, we are on the edge of the next shift. And a new set of opportunities.

Connect, connect, connect has brought us to a place where we feel overwhelmed, over-stimulated and unfulfilled.

We want protection, we want more filtering, we want a sense of meaning and belonging—this is the pendulum shift that emerges. These qualities characterize the products and services we want, the marketing messages that resonate with us and the types of leaders and corporate cultures that engage us. We have gone from an era of creating opportunity in 1965-1985 to scanning for opportunity in 1985-2005, to now, discerning opportunity in 2005-2025. We have gone from asking what do I have to gain to asking what do I have to lose?

Protection and Filtering

We want to protect and be protected. We want to sort through noise effectively to find signal. We want Tivo. We want to wear an iPod as much to listen to our own playlists as to BLOCK out the rest of the world and protect ourselves from all that noise. We want to trust that Google is giving us the MOST relevant information we need. We want to trust that the politicians are going to protect us. Oops. Still working on that one. But if they “seem” like protectors, in some cases, that’s enough for them to get elected. We want to TRUST the companies we buy from. The marketing messages and the companies that work for us evoke feelings of trust, of protection.

Meaning and Belonging

People (eg, Technorati) are starting to talk about networks of interconnected communities—a little more manageable than the me and the rest of the world network we’ve been mixing with.

Whether it’s products or services, recruiting strategies, leadership, marketing or coporate cultures, we will increasingly be inclined to resonate with messages of meaning, belonging, protection, and trust.


Discerning opportunity—what do we REALLY need and want to pay attention to? Attention IS our scarcest and most valuable resource. What we do with our attention defines us.

For the last two decades, give or take, 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 no longer 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? Discern? Use our attention as well and as wisely as we possibly can?

Dee Hock, back in 1996, said:

  • Noise becomes data when it has a cognitive pattern.
  • Data becomes information when assembled into a coherent whole, which can be related to other information.
  • Information becomes knowledge when integrated with other information in a form useful for making decisions and determining actions.
  • Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in anticipating, judging and acting.
  • Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principles, memory and projection.

Seems to me, our opportunity is to move from being knowledge workers to becoming understanding and wisdom workers.

Quality of life: the new benchmark.

Thank you for your attention.