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Continuous partial nonsense

June 27, 2005

"The world is too much with us," wrote William Wordsworth in 1807. Last week, at Kevin Werbach's Supernova conference, ex-Microsoft exec Linda Stone voiced a similar thought a little more prosaically. Bombarded by digital stimuli, we exist in a condition of "continuous partial attention," she said, according to a transcript posted by Nat Torkington. "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." Now there's already a lot of hooey here, but if Stone's saying that we live in a culture of distractedness, where input-processing takes precedence over contemplation, she's making a valid point.

But her argument gets awfully thin when she tries to broaden it. She links the continuous-partial-attention idea to what she sees as "20-year cycles" in which people act either collectively or individualistically. From 1945 to 1965, we were in a collective mode, putting our faith in big institutions like the government. From 1965 to 1985, we shifted to the individualistic mode, striving for self-expression. From 1985 to 2005, we shifted back to the collective, desiring to be networked. This is much too tidy. These alleged shifts in consciousness were nowhere near as abrupt or universal as Stone implies. Moreover, they are hardly evidence of natural 20-year cycles. Instead, they were precipitated by external events, particularly the end of World War II, which gave people trust in institutions and set off a long period of economic growth, and the start of the Vietnam War, which would undermine trust in insititutions and coincide with the start of an economic slowdown. And were, say, the late 50s really a period of collectivism while the late 60s were marked by individualism? A case could be made that it was exactly the opposite: the 50s were a time of a selfish concentration on one's personal situation while the 60s saw a flowering of collective thinking and activism.

As for the 1985-2005 period, that also marked a relatively peaceful time of fairly strong economic growth. People felt generally complacent about the future. But to call it an era of collectivism again seems a stretch. Did we really start "reaching out for a network" around 1985 because we had grown "narcissistic and lonely," as Stone argues? Does that mean we're less narcissistic and lonely now then we were 20 years ago? Why then has this era made us feel "promiscuous" and "empty," as Stone puts it? That seems like the outcome of an individualistic rather than a collective period.

Continuing with her 20-year-cycle theme, Stone argues that we're now about to move back to a greater focus on individual fulfillment, in which people will seek to give their full attention to a small number of "meaningful connections" instead of giving cursory attention to myriad Blackberry hookups. "The next aphrodisiac is committed full-attention focus. In this new era, experiencing this engaged attention is to feel alive." The popularity of the iPod, in this view, is "as much about personal space as personalized playlists." This strikes me as pure hogwash. The iPod as a symbol of deepening attentiveness? Come on. Forget the 20-year cycles. What we've seen is a steady, continuing rise in the general level of distractedness as computing and communication technologies deliver an ever greater and faster-flowing stream of stimuli. And there's no end in sight.

What Stone is really expressing - and why it seems to have struck such a chord among the technorati - is middle-age fatigue and angst. The first generation of the PC/Internet avatars is getting older and becoming disillusioned with what they've wrought; the Silicon Age, it turns out, is no Golden Age. They're starting to yearn for something more. What's sad is that Stone and her compatriots still cling to the belief that technology will fill the personal void. "Trusted filters, trusted protectors, trusted concierges, 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," she says.

I'll let Wordsworth answer:

Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


"Middle age fatigue and angst?" Look, I'm not the one quoting Wordsworth!

I, for one, have no disillusionment - I remain as excited as ever about the pace and products of technological innovation. Nor would I ever want to roll back the extraordinary reach and richness that technological innovation has brought to communication.

What I do want are more effective ways to increase my return on attention and ways to give full attention to the people and things that matter most in my life. As I said explicitly in my blog posting , technology can provide only part of the answer. In many cases, the answer is simply to turn the technology off for a period of time.

Posted by: John Hagel at June 29, 2005 02:05 AM

John, I didn't say I had anything against middle-age fatigue and angst. I'm happy to admit I indulge in both continuously. I'm just saying, let's not turn personal grouses into grand theories of history. Yeats could get away with that, but most mortals can't.

Posted by: Nick at July 1, 2005 11:22 PM

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