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Continuous Partial Attention 245

ubercombatwombat writes "While answering my softphone and checking my mail simultaneously I ran across the following article by Steven Levy. In it he writes about a speaker named Linda Stone and something she called "Continuous Partial Attention." I finally had a phrase for the reason I turn off wi-fi, asked people to turn off their cell phones and put away their crackberrys when I am speaking to a group. I suffer from this too. Starting today I am going to do something about it, brb."
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Continuous Partial Attention

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  • by yagu ( 721525 ) * < minus cat> on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:15PM (#14980883) Journal

    Continuous Partial Attention is way too kind. It begs forgiveness at the promise of continuous, then betrays with partial.

    Anyone who's majored in Mathematics (I did) must spend one semester carefully defining, understanding, and proving continuity. What's described by today's "etiquette" clearly and egregiously violates the notion of continuous, rendering the euphemism "Continous Partial Attention" nothing more than an oxymoron.

    And, it's pretty easy to tell when the person on the other end is giving CPA... in person, vague and inconsistent eye contact while constantly glancing at some screen (be it PDA or computer). Remotely (phone) it's even more annoying.

    I've taken my own path to self-correct.

    • I leave my computer in computer places (office, den, back room) rather than sit mesmerized in front of a laptop screen in the kitchen, avoiding the partial-contact with friends and family.
    • I also turn off my cell phone ANYWHERE where it intrudes and is unnecessary (actually I mostly don't even carry one).
    • I don't fire up my PDA at kids' concerts and recitals to carry on text message and e-mail conversations.

    Of the last ten social events I've attended (movies, parties, recitals, concerts) every single time I saw, heard, and was distracted by someone using some PDA, or other gadget... and not one of those times did it seem appropriate or necessary (not saying there weren't necessary times, but I'm guessing there weren't).

    I've yet to meet anyone important enough they must be connected and engaged every waking moment. The world worked well before all of this, it would be a better place if we turned down the volume on the gadgetry (not that Verizon, SONY, Apple, et. al., will ever allow that to happen on their watch (literally)).

    It doesn't help that we somehow come up with a positive sounding euphemism for it.

  • not really new (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) * <bittercode@gmail> on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:21PM (#14980926) Homepage Journal
    this has existed since humans had the ability to think about more than one thing at a time. i can be sitting in a room with zero distractions, listening to a presentation and i still drift in and out.
    my wife has vivid memories of sitting in church as a child while her dad made to-do lists during the sermon.
    it is a valuable skill, being able to give partial attention to multiple inputs. it keeps us alive in many situations. when i worked on a flight deck we called it 'keeping your head on a swivel'. and never getting too locked in to one thing. that was the way to get blown over or some other nastiness.
    and i'd be very surprised to find a person who would assert that surfing the web or whatever else they may do at a presentation had no effect on their attention. they know it degrades it, but the point is, most such venues don't warrant the attenders full attention. in the case that it does, they will quickly shift away from the other inputs.
  • Right... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mgblst ( 80109 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:22PM (#14980944) Homepage
    I have difficulty focusing on one thing when I am only reading a webpage like that one. With hundreds of links on the page, nice big flash adds, and the text taking up a quarter width of the page, and split aroung an add, how can I help it. What a joke. Please don't link to that site again. What were they thinking. Can't I just read an article, without a thousand distractions on the page.
  • Notice it in chats (Score:5, Insightful)

    by From A Far Away Land ( 930780 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:27PM (#14980985) Homepage Journal
    I notice myself typing BRB a lot as soon as someone messages me through MSN. Usually it's not that I don't want to talk to them, it's just that I was putting off something else I was going to do, and they've broken me out of what I was currently doing, so before I get attached in a new conversation I can leap over to what I should be doing.

    Some days I just throw myself at one task and get it done, rather than dabbling in everything. Dabbling in everything is fun, and feels like a busy day, but it tends to produce a lot less than a dedicated day [which is usually away from the primary computer(s) I use].
  • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:33PM (#14981034) Journal
    There is an answer for this, well, several answers that partially fix the problem. I'll wager that MS won't write the software needed, nor will any educational institution instruct people on how to use technology.

    Mobile devices, computers, all this technology that serves to distract us is capable of being moderated. That is to say, my phone should only ring when the call is from list X while I have it set this way, so that while I'm attending certain functions, only list X callers will interrupt my activities. I should be able to have many such lists, and using ring tones, know which list the caller is from. The same goes for computers, any activity on the computer that demands attention can be moderated (except /. of course) so that my attention is interrupted not by every little thing, but only those things I'm interested in at that time.

    This limits the distractions, and gives us more time to concentrate on other things, to be more effective at multitasking. This, I believe, was the original reasoning for executives to have an assistant. Now we have PDAs and they are not moderating the interuptions to our lives... not really very good assistants!

    The simple idea of moderating alerts, notifications, emails, and such is just not catching on. In some 10 years or more, I can see computer programs that have some kind of AI built into them to make them really good digital assistants.... till then, pfft, people will still wreck their cars while typing an email, driving, and trying to eat lunch at the same time... There was a word we used to use - Dictation, why don't PDAs allow for dictation of emails?

    Well, so much for technological 'advances'
  • by Zelph ( 628698 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:35PM (#14981054) Homepage
    I've actually been in church when some guy took a cell phone call. My mother was at a funeral when someone was gabbing on the cell in the back. That when CPA is REALLY a problem.
    But my comments, from a former computer science undergrad major that changed his mind in senior year to become a history major is this: I am now working on my PhD in history and I know one thing: Today's grad school students are suffering from this (even the historians!). And either they will ALL suffer from this, or most will and a select few will avoid this problem and become the real experts in their academic study. You cannot become an expert in a particular field of study without TIME and STUDY. Both of those aspects are compromised with CPA.
  • by OzPeter ( 195038 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:46PM (#14981138)
    I see things like this at the gym where people are reading books/magazines while using the treadmill. I watch them get so involved in their reading that their workout suffers. Yet I am sure they think that they are having a worthwhile workout.

    There is an old chinese saying about living life that sums up a good way to live it:

    Sleep when tired, eat when hungry.
  • Re:yabut (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) * <bittercode@gmail> on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:49PM (#14981157) Homepage Journal
    well yes, you still have to avoid the distractions, but they've always been there. don't feel sad when you're driving. turn of the mp3 player and ask your wife to talk to you instead of someone else.
    i remember when walkmans got big and people would just sit in the middle of social situations with headphones on - not nearly as unobtrusive as ipod headphones- and it's dumb and rude. (still is with the ipod).
    my point is not that it isn't a problem if you are going through life paying more attention to things other than people (things being your own inner voice or any other distraction) but rather that this is an age old issue being manifested with new technological forms of distraction. it is a lot like taking everything we've always had and adding an 'e' or 'i' to it and acting like it is brand new.
  • by MacBoy ( 30701 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @12:50PM (#14981167)
    If my PDA or phone is silent while I work with it, then why is it a distraction?

    The clickity-clickity of a person (or multiple persons) thumbing a reply to every super-urgent e-mail they receive on their crackberries during meetings or presentations is not silent. Nor is someone pecking at a laptop keyboard. Nor is a cellphone vibrate alert. Yes, even that is distracting, not only to the presenter or speaker, but more importantly, to the other people who are there to participate in the meeting, discussion, or presentation.

  • The Off Switch (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SeeMyNuts! ( 955740 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @01:03PM (#14981271)

    Turning things off is perhaps the single most important activity people can do, today, especially when children are around. Turn the TV off, turn the radio off, close the web browser, and realize that silence is quite enjoyable at times. Toddlers' heads aren't spinning off trying to "multi task" at TV and toys, and parents' heads aren't crunching trying to watch a show while pretending to give their children attention. The same goes for co-workers in the office. People are offended when they can't get undivided attention. I can't stand it when I'm trying to talk to someone, the phone rings, and I might as well leave. Nothing important gets done.

    I wonder how productivity is measured, because it doesn't seem to be increasing. At least, people are being stretched until productivity simply cannot increase, without some sort of bionic implants.

  • by twitter ( 104583 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @01:26PM (#14981439) Homepage Journal
    I'll wager that MS won't write the software needed, nor will any educational institution instruct people on how to use technology .... my phone should only ring when the call is from list X while I have it set this way, so that while I'm attending certain functions, only list X callers will interrupt my activities.

    If M$ made it, would you trust it to work? M$ "Smart" phones have not been very smart.

    In the mean time, I'm keeping the thing on. My duty to my pregnant wife and four year old girl are more important to me than what you think of my manners. Nokia has a ring tone or two that don't sound like a cell phone and are not nearly as obtrusive as the typical cell phone spam song defaults. The "meeting mode" works too, providing an ascending ring as does the choice of vibrate instead of ring. Doctors, first responders and many other people have even greater needs for constant contact than I do.

    Most people should view other's loyalty to their friends and family as more important than most things in life and tolerate a few interruptions. People who talk about "crackberries" and think their particular talk is more important than God don't have their priorties in order.

    Meetings are nice now and then, but electronic communications are making them less useful and less productive. If the Linux kernel, GNU, Gnome, KDE, can all be built online without regular meetings, what task can't be done this way?

  • Re:Yes but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by lpevey ( 115393 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @01:31PM (#14981467)
    Imagine if the Lincoln-Douglas debates had been kept to under 20 minutes? Or do you think maybe Douglas did some demonstrations to keep his audience interested? I tend to think the people listening had fewer immediate distractions and longer attention spans.

    (If you think this argument sounds familiar, it is lifted from Neil Postman. circa 1980ish?)
  • by twitter ( 104583 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @01:39PM (#14981529) Homepage Journal
    Wow, the author is a bigger ludite than I though. I should have guessed it from M$NBC.

    During the presentations the faces of at least half the crowd were lit with the spooky reflection of the laptops open before them. Those without computers would periodically bow their heads to the palmtop shrine of the BlackBerry. Every speaker was competing with the distractions of e-mail, instant messaging, Web surfing, online bill paying, blogging and an Internet chat "back channel" where conferencees supplied snarky commentary on the speakers. ... Your world turns into a never-ending cocktail party where you're always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner.

    What a small minded slam. How does he know that people are not googling for the author's articles or hitting wikipedia for terms they don't understand? Even the chatting with your peers can be useful and informative. It sure beats the hell out of whispering back and forth. People want to share and your friends have more pertinent information than anyone else. All this "spooky" talk about betrayal and badmouthing misses all the good things you can do with the tech at hand.

    If I want to tune out of your speech, I'll leave in your face and go to a presentation that holds my interest. You should not be afraid of my cell phone or Zaurus. It's my time and you should respect my use of it, so long as I don't bother people sitting around me.

  • by booch ( 4157 ) <`slashdot2010' `at' `'> on Thursday March 23, 2006 @01:47PM (#14981602) Homepage
    I think an oxymoron is entirely appropriate to describe this problem. The whole point of the technologies is to provide us with continuous access, and yet on the whole, they're providing us with the opposite -- disconnectedness from those around us.
  • by Expert Determination ( 950523 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @01:49PM (#14981633)
    That's the biggest US computer graphics conference. While people present their papers the halls are usually full of people surfing the web or reading or whatever.'s worth thinking about why people do this. I'm as guilty as anyone. The fact is - most paper presentations are incredibly boring. A certain percentage of them are given by people whose first language isn't English and are agony to listen to. Many are simply readings of the paper itself which is of no value to anyone. You have to ask what the purpose of a paper presentation actually is - as far as I can make out it's primary function is as a reward to the paper author, not a means of technical communication. In fact there are a whole bunch of colluding parties here: the conference organisers gain prestige from the presentation of good papers, the authors gain prestige by being able to claim they spoke at SIGGRAPH, and the audience get to have fun for a few days while claiming they were working. Everyone gains.

    In fact, the way I use SIGGRAPH is this: I take my laptop with me and use the time away from my desk, in the conference hall, experimenting with speculative algorithms without the pressure of having to deliver anything. Just being in the presence of people talking about algorithms can be incredibly inspiring, even if you ignore the details of what they have to say. This has paid off for me quite well a couple of times in my life. And I'll read the papers later in the conference proceedings if something seems interesting.

    So I plan to continue my continuous partial attention at SIGGRAPH every year.

  • by rtphokie ( 518490 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @02:09PM (#14981765)
    I hate it when presenters or other meeting runners do this. Dont judge me guilty before I've committed a crime. This also implies that what they have to say is going to keep my attention 100% of the time, which it never does. Why cant I read an email or two while you fumble with your slides, make sure everyone on the video conference can hear you, take a drink of water, and whatever else takes up the first 10 minutes of every meeting?

    If someone is distracting, have the courage call them out. This premptive strike is cowardly and more unprofessional than the behavoir it is trying to prevent.
  • Re:Yes but... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by anothy ( 83176 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @02:54PM (#14982160) Homepage
    wtf? that's the most astounding unintentionally arrogant thing i've heard in weeks. if i had the opportunity to sit through one of Prof. Einstein's lectures, i'm not complaining if he goes over 20 minutes. regardless of whether there's a "demonstration" or any other form of entertainment. same with lots of other people. there's a lot of information in the world, and i don't know most of it. other people, collectively, know a hell of a lot more than i do.
    my time is valuable. but it's not the world's scarcest resource. particularly when i attend a class, or conference, or even in most work meetings, i'm there to learn. some things take more than 20 minutes to do that.
  • Are you enabling? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Goldenhawk ( 242867 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @02:57PM (#14982194) Homepage
    > I've been in project meetings where I meticulously explained the plan, only to
    > be whacked later because someone who was typing and reading stuff on her
    > laptop screen as I explained what I planned to do realized she didn't know
    > what I was doing ... and had to report on the project to her manager.

    Are you "enabling" the situation? In psychology terms, an "enabler" is someone who not only permits an undesireable situation, but often enables it to continue by fixing the resulting problems.

    Seems to me that the best lesson we can teach this kind of person is to point out exactly why they missed the information, ask them to pay attention to the discussion next time, and let them take the heat with their manager, rather than bailing them out and essentially teaching them that what they did was not only accepted, but had no negative consequences and this could be repeated in the future.

    Adults may not be small children, but sometimes they need to be treated like one if they can't get the point any other way.
  • by Lilkeeney ( 131454 ) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @02:58PM (#14982199) Homepage
    Managing to survive? We managed to survive before cars, but my guess is that you have a car. We also managed to survive before antibiotics and vaccines, but my guess is that you don't have a problem using them. Although, I think doctors should carry pagers and cell phones at times that doesn't really matter. Just because we managed to survive without something before is not a reason to not use it now.

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!