Great thought: Continuous partial attention

The Hannibal Blog only pretended to close off the thread on great thinkers by anointing a winner (Patanjali). This is a blog about a forthcoming book (mine), but also about ideas, so I will keep highlighting the best thinkers I come across.

Today: Linda Stone, formerly a researcher at Apple and Microsoft, and now simply a thinker and a liver of life.

Her idea is called continuous partial attention. It has been the bane of our existence in the rich world for the past two decades, and it is not multitasking. The good news is that the age of continuous partial attention is almost over. I will explain below, but if you have time, watch Linda:

Let me flesh that out a bit with the notes from my interview with her in 2006. (I ended up quoting her, but only tangentially, in this concluding chapter of my Special Report on new media in The Economist.)

  • From about 1945 to 65, we lived in an era when we “we suppressed our creativity” in order to pay full attention to whatever we were doing. The cultural icon was I Love Lucy: she “talked on the phone with her whole body and did nothing else! Everything in that era was focused on company or family. You were committed. You stayed put.”
  • From 65 to 85, “we questioned authority and asked for creativity.” This era became “all about me and my personal expression.” We wanted freedom. Divorce went up, commitment down. We paid attention only if we saw a payback. And so we began multitasking. Our motivation was to become more productive so that we might have more opportunities in life.
  • From 85 to 2005 we became “narcissistic and lonely and reached out for connection“. Technology increasingly allowed us to be “always on” the network, via email, cellphones, WiFi etc. Our motivation shifted from creating opportunities to scanning for opportunity. So we began to pay continuous partial attention. Instead of Lucy, we had Seinfeld, talking on the phone while doing other things, such as making out with his girlfriend. He was not multitasking; he was paying partial attention in case something better came along.

This is the important but subtle key to understanding Linda’s idea. Continuous partial attention (think SMSing while you’re in a meeting) does not come from a desire to be more productive and efficient but from

desiring to be a live node on the network and fearing that you’re missing out on something.

Now the good news

Starting about now, says Linda, we are entering a new era. That’s because we are “overwhelmed” by technology, and

longing for protection and meaningful connections, quality over quantity.

So we consciously forgo some opportunities to savor others, such as dinner with friends. We reassert our power over technology and the network by making our gadgets filter our world to keep out the noise. As Linda says,

The real aphrodisiac in this next era is attention…. What we’re moving into is an era where we value ownership of our time” [and] “discover the joy of focusing”

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4 thoughts on “Great thought: Continuous partial attention

  1. Fascinating! Now I feel ahead of the curve. I began doing this some time ago. In fact, during the 1965-1985 period. It was then that I began controlling my life rather than letting it control me. Strangely, it was because my (now ex-) wife berated me, first, over working too much much overtime and, second, that I was always around and had no hobbies (after shutting off all overtime). Our current technology was unforeseen at that time but I began to get a glimpse of it as I worked within the telecom industry. Perhaps because I was ahead of the curve, I never bought into the continuous partial attention but was moving toward focusing even then.

  2. I have to confess that I listened to your Nomad podcast at the Economist some time ago. I liked your analogy of gambler behavior. The eras described by Ms. Stone are consistent with Strauss and Howe, and their Generations, if we identify the Types with those coming of age during the eras she describes. If one feels out of sync with any era, where does that leave him? That is, if you were displaced by WWII and didn’t live the dream following the war, you weren’t a hippy (because you parents didn’t live the dream,either), and today you don’t even own a cell phone? What are you? A homeless vet? French?

    I can’t wait to see a catalog in the mail for baby boomers that sells paraphernalia for their ‘attention time.’ ‘Filters for the joy of focusing.’ Gack. The best way to filter is by turning your shit off (IMHO). It works for kids, too.

  3. Mr. Crotchety, my parents didn’t quite “live the dream” but I toyed with the hippie lifestyle anyway. That was only during short periods (on leave or liberty in the Navy… I was busy otherwise). I am giving up my cellphone, though, because rollover minutes have maxed out somewhere above 5000 and I can’t see paying for something I don’t use (maybe if I had some friends). I am not homeless but I am a vet and I’m not even French.

  4. Strauss and Howe: I had to go to Wikipedia for it, and what do I discover? archetypes! I’m hooked.

    Personally, I’ve tried being a Hippie and French and failed. So now I am yearning to get ahead of the curve, like Douglas: To become an Aussteiger–one who gets off the grid for the simple life–is looking more attractive to me by the day…

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