Jun 22

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

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.

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Comments: 15

  Ed Campbell [06.22.05 12:47 PM]

[after reading the 1st 6 paragraphs] -- It's called an eidetic mind. One of the prominent, natively-dialectic processes the old mind is capable of. Not certain if everyone has the capacity.

  Ed Campbell [06.22.05 12:54 PM]

" iPod as much about personal space as personalized playlists" -- cogent; but, not to folks who natively function in eidetic fashion. I can't wear earbuds. They inhibit my capability to hear everything else that's going on.

Even though that "everything else" is mostly the wind in the trees as I sit here in the portal to our workshop -- Raga Radio playing through powered speakers connected to my Powerbook -- watching a couple of thunderheads piling up over the Pecos end of the Sangre de Cristos -- and enjoying this article.

  Peter [06.22.05 01:26 PM]

Ed - I had not heard the term 'eidetic', so I've done my best to look up information on it. From what I can tell, it seems to describe a type of human memory function whereby someone is able to recall information with astonishing depth, accuracy, and clarity. I'm just wondering how this connects to the 'continuous partial attention' concept, which seems more to describe a state of mind whereby our attention is split between a number of different things. Maybe I misunderstand the eidetic concept; perhaps you can clarify for me.

  Greg Linden [06.22.05 01:53 PM]

Great post, Nat. We're all overwhelmed by the flood of information in our daily lives. We need tools to separate the signal from the noise, to help us find what is important and relevant.

That's exactly what we're trying to build at Findory. We're using personalization technology to personalize information. We learn from what you do and help to surface the information you need.

  Arthur [06.23.05 11:46 AM]

It's a bit sad to me that the best possibility presented for controlling the impact of information tumult that has attended the continuing invitation of the Next Big Thing into our lives, is the Next Big Thing.

*That* perception which is indeed The Story, here.

Technologist/priestly hubris.

My son, totally outside my influence, made the decision to leave his computer equipment behind when he went up to school last semester. He is as unextraordinary as his father. But perhaps a good bellweather of the Next Big Thing.


  Ed Campbell [06.23.05 12:23 PM]

Peter, it may just be that I'm an old fart -- who recalls [approximately] the first time I ran into the definition of eidetic which I still use. Because that had to be 50 years ago!

The definition may have changed over time.

I'll look around for source material for you.

  Ed Campbell [06.23.05 12:38 PM]

What a riot! Peter, the more I wander, trying to find older definitions of "eidetic" -- the greater become the number of additional definitions I run into. Definitions of how to perceive color and images, definitions [in 4 stages!] of relationships between what is perceived and their individual relationship to reality and non-reality. Phew!

Let's just say that, as originally learned, "eidetic" referred to a complete dialectic, from core to peripheral features, attributes and processes -- perceived and understood by an [therefore] eidetic mind.

At the time, this was in opposition to folks who only conceptualize in a wooden, stolid fashion -- of processes that matched their rigidity.

  Ed Campbell [06.23.05 12:52 PM]

It appears the Cardassian definition is most current, e.g., essentially a photographic memory. Having hung out with a couple of folks over the decades with that ability, I can appreciate the definition. Though the dear friend [now deceased] who first I knew with that capacity -- shared "my" definition of eidetic.

The other is a cop who drives lawyers crazy!

Interesting in that further wanderings show the photographic memory definition applied to sources like "Starman Jones" by Heinlein in the early 1950's -- when, I believe, Heinlein might have proferred the definition I use. But, hey, the topic probably doesn't require more time than this.

  Peter [06.24.05 04:49 AM]

Ed - Thanks, I appreciate your research and insight. I agree that the photographic memory definition sounds like the most current. In that sense, I don't think that 'continuous partial attention' would require an eidetic mind, though it could be extremely helpful! :-)

  Erin [06.24.05 06:29 AM]

I do like to turn off the email from time to time, but all I can think of when I hear "email-free Fridays" is that *I* wouldn't have more creative time with colleagues, because *I* work from home, a two-hour plane trip from the "home office". That makes it hard to get around using email.

  gnat [06.24.05 08:14 AM]

Erin: Don't you feel, though, that the email eventually gets in the way of finishing a task? My Dad had a great observation: a phone call usually results in action, email usually results in a question. I know Rael's taken one day a week for pure hacking. I'd like a day a week to do things without higher-priority tasks being added to my queue. It feels so good to finish something, probably because it's so rare. I'd like that feeling more often!

  Ed Campbell [06.24.05 10:25 AM]

Though many of my clients don't know it, Friday [today] is my day off from "official" office commitments. I don't answer either my home/office phone or cell phone. If a disaster-in-progress is noted by voicemail, I may intervene or respond. Same goes for email -- though, I'll screen incoming.

If for no other reason, it helps what passes for my sanity. And it's my reading day, as well.

  Christopher Townson [04.27.06 08:25 AM]

Eidos (from whence: eidetic - of, or pertaining to, eidos) is a hugely important concept in philosophy from Ancient Greek times to the present. However, you don't need to know all of that!

Very basically, from the Platonic perspective, eidos (roughly, "to see") is the idea of something ... which comes together in matter (hyle) and form (morphe). For example, you can see the matter and form of a "table", but without the eidos of "table-ness" it would just be a bunch of stuff. Ergo: eidos is "to see".

It's taken on a whole life of its own within various academic discourses since, of course! Here's an interesting and accessible article on eidos

  Xander Prewitt [11.16.06 10:09 PM]

Pop trio Atomic Kitten will reform to play a concert in support of jailed Liverpool football fan Michael Shields...

  Marie [02.05.07 08:12 AM]

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote in 1934:
"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" (from Two Choruses from The Rock).
and in his poem "Burnt Norton" : Only a flicker/ Over the strained time-ridden faces / Distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning / Tumid apathy with no concentration."
Well phrased and relevant today. It makes me feel better anyway. This topic has long been important to me as writer about technology, trying to write how the technology helps lives not just that some new gadget is cool in and of itself. Thanks.

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