Finding the real aphrodisiac

It’s been said that we now live in an attention economy, what I equate to what everyone used to call ‘information overload.’

It addresses a situation where there is so much to which you could give your attention that the only way to deal with it all is to divide your attention and share it among many needs.

I’ve been calling this a ‘partial attention economy,’ which is what you get when you cannot give your exclusive attention to so many different things.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had the feeling for quite a while that I seem to be living in a continuous partial attention economy.

How apt, then, to read this text that defines the term:

Continuous Partial Attention [CPA] is the trend of stretching our ‘attention bandwidth’ to cope with the myriad demands on our concentration posed by technology. The term was coined by the writer Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, who describes CPA as ‘the behaviour of continuously monitoring as many inputs as possible, paying partial attention to each’. Stone, notes that CPA is a ‘post-multitasking behaviour’. If multitasking is ‘motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient’, CPA is ‘motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network’. Anxious to connect and desperate not to miss any opportunities, CPA ‘contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation, and a sense of being unfulfilled’. Indeed, the ‘always on’ character of technology (such as emails, PDAs, IM, VOIP) compromises ‘normal’ social interactions (checking your Blackberry at lunch) and, in Stone’s analysis, ‘has created an artificial sense of constant crisis’. Like wild animals in a continuous state of alert, an ‘adrenalised fight or flight mechanism kicks in’. Of the hundreds of emails received each day, Stone asks, how many are ‘tigers’, requiring immediate action, and how many are merely ‘mice’? (Most, in fact, are likely to be spam.) Faced with this profusion of inputs we increasingly turn to filters (Sky+) and blocks (iPods) to find a signal amidst the noise.

Stone elegantly, and perhaps presciently, calls committed and undivided attention ‘the real aphrodisiac’. And she suggests that ‘the world may continue to be noisy, but, our yearning and fulfilment are more likely to come from getting to the bottom of things, from stillness, and from opportunities for meaningful connection’.

From Schott’s Almanac 2007, one of the little gifts I received on Christmas Day.

I’d not encountered Linda Stone before reading this. I’m glad I have now.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Samantha Grant

    Thanks Neville. This is a wonderful post, especially at this time of year when some of us are attempting to remain off-line for a short while (I only peeked at a few blogs, honest!)

    An eloquent and insightful article by Linda Stone – check out Neville’s links here to read more about why Linda believes that “attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit”.

    Wishing you all the best for the festive season and for the year ahead.

  2. Lee Hopkins

    Martyn, I was going to say something facetious about your very clever comment, but I’ve forgotten what it was…

    Neville: CPA is something I’ve been wrestling with for a while and am no closer to finding a sensible balance between ‘being in the mix’ and ‘reflecting on the meaning aka seeing the wood for the trees’.

    It strikes me that it is very difficult to be both ‘in the thick of things’ and thus adding to your ratings, rankings and subscriber numbers and at the same time be wise and ‘distant’ enough to be able to reflect on a phenomenon’s true (if shifting) import and meaning.

    Which is why my quasi-hagiography on FIR: you two are the ‘voices of reason’ and ‘voices of mixmasters’ that help us all both ‘be in the now’ and ‘in the greater whole’.

    My great honour and blessing was and still is to be allowed to be a part of it, albeit more infrequently than I would prefer and with nowhere near as much wisdom as you two.

    I am praying for the opportunity to be in New Orleans for the IABC knees-up in the middle of the year — allow me to buy you a G&T, yes?

  3. neville

    Tips, Bryan? Bereft of meaningful ideas on this one, unfortunately. Still hunting the aphrodisiac. Is it a fruitless quest?

    Lee, I hope you do make it to New Orleans next June. And yes, a g&t will be very nice indeed!

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