Continuous Partial Attention, or When Can Technology Become Too Much?

Continous partial attention is an unintended byproduct of the pervasiveness of mobile wireless devices and other digital tools in our lives. It means that

we are motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. We want to connect, we want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities—activities or people—in any given moment.

(see this blog on the O'Reilly Radar)

In essence, when we are in a state of continuous partial attention we are probably more virtually connected than physically, which is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, according to Richard Levin's Commentary on tonight's Business Report on PBS (which I was watching while scanning blogs, reading email, and writing in my own blog), because technology enables us to do it, we often try to cram too much into a day. Levin noted that we are now using our drive time to multitask, checking email, talking on our cell phones, etc. No wonder that many municipalities are starting to put bans on cell phone use while driving (and rightly so, as accidents involving drivers on cell phones have been on the rise; see for example this report by the Vermont Legislative Research Shop or this report by CBS News).

Instead, according to Levin, we should learn to live in the moment more (i.e. be more aware of our surroundings and the people we interact with face-to-face), invest in time instead of spending it, conserving time instead of wasting it.

I tend to agree with Levin, although I'm not saying that using technology for communicating and networking is a bad thing. In fact, I probably wouldn't be were I am now in my career if I hadn't been able to network with many people in the field of educational technology. I've had discussions with many of them online, but have never met them in person. Digital technology and social software tools have enabled me to learn from these people in ways that I could not otherwise do.

However, the question arises when enough is enough. Many people are addicted to staying in touch virtually, and are constantly checking for messages (hence the nickname Crackberry for the popular Blackberry devices) from their social networks, negatively impacting their immediate personal networks of family, friends, and co-workers (see e.g. this NPR story).

I am just as guilty as the next person when it comes to social networking. I use email and IM daily, am trying to blog on a regular basis, use a feedreader, and check a variety of forums and blogs to stay informed and connected. Am I learning more? Definitely. Am I more connected? Absolutely. Does the amount of information get overwhelming sometimes? You bet!

So what's the solution? This, I think, is where education can play an important role. It's not a matter of teaching students to master all of the latest gadgets and social software tools. There are simply too many of them. It's more a matter of helping students come to an understanding of the bigger technology picture. Technology will make you more connected to the world and all of its resources. It's what you do with these resources that will either make you a critical, informed, and attentive person who knows when to hit the "off" button, or somebody who is so deeply entangled in his or her social and virtual network that there is no way out. Like Levin said tonight, we need to learn to live in the moment more.

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