Category Archives: Continuous Partial Attention

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


Interesting post today on the Web Worker Daily blog, entitled “Open Thread: How Do You Cope with Web-Induced Attention Deficit Disorder?” I can definitely identify with this one, as I spend a substantial part of my work day (and beyond) online. The post provides some tips to deal with this, as reposted from Business Week’s Working Parents blog post about Dr. Edward Hallowell’s book CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap – Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD:

1) Set aside time to work before you check your e-mail or snail mail or voice mail, before you allow the world to intrude on your fresh and focused state of mind.

2) Do not allow the world to have access to you 24/7. Turn off your BlackBerry and cell phone. Stretch or have a five-minute conversation. When you sit down again, you’ll be focused.

3) Prioritizing is crucial. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself spread so thin you’ll only be able to see your good friends on the first Tuesday in February.

4) Give yourself permission to end relationships and projects that drain you.

5) Do what you’re good at and delegate the rest. This is important, because when we do what we’re good at, the work can take on the quality of play.

6) Keep in mind that some of our best thoughts come when we’re doing nothing. Downtime is a forgotten art.

Of course I added the Web Worker Daily blog to my feeds, I need more info; and  … in order to fulfill esp. numbers 2 and 6 on the list of suggestions, I’m going camping this weekend 😉

Image credit: “Multitasking”, Tscherno’s photostream:

Technology v. People, or When Can Technology Become Too Much? Part III

There was an interesting story on 60 Minutes last Sunday that I’ve been meaning to write about, called Working 24/7. The report was about how people in the U.S. now work more than ever before and that technology such as email, IM, VOIP, cell phones, Crackberries, wireless Internet etc. enable us to really work anywhere, anytime. The report gave the example of BestBuy who now has a program under which employees can work anywhere and anytime as long as the work gets done. A few examples (some I think were chosen on purpose because they seem a little extreme):

Shenkman is such a workaholic that he has wired his house with Internet, telephone and television in every single room. As CEO of the global high-tech firm Exigen in San Francisco, he feels he has to be available to his customers at all hours. … He’s so obsessed, he has wired his shower. When Greg soaps up, he doesn’t daydream — he watches the business news, checks his e-mail, and answers the phone (and he did during the show. They had it set up this way, so they could show how the water turns off when answering a call, and that all the tech was waterproof as well.

It turns out Joe and Christina e-mail and instant-message each other, even if they are at home (this one cracked me up, although it is pretty sad as these people are husband and wife and in the same location).

 Of course there are lots of negative side effects to working in this way (shouldn’t be too hard to figure this out):

  • More time working means less time with family
  • More instances of multitasking and continuous partial attention (with associated consequences for relationships)
  • Sleep disorders (not mentioned but shouldn’t be too surprising)
  • Addiction too work (some people mentioned they’ve canceled vacations, or are having a hard time relaxing)
  • Addiction to communication technology (they’re called Crackberries for a reason!)
  • Exploitation of workers (more hours, same pay)
  • Working more, BUT being less productive (on average)!!

 And, according to the segment, some positive effects too:

  • More flexibility in when and where to work (the BestBuy example)
  • As a result, some workers’ health has improved
  • Sharing jobs means more time at home (technology has led to improved communication), when cutting back on hours

But what got me most about the entire report was this:

Christina says she does tune out everything once she gets home from work, to play with their 8-month old daughter Amina. She even turns her cell phones off.

But when Amina gets fussy, they both reach for her favorite toy: the BlackBerry.

“I can have her on the bed with a bunch of toys,” Christina says. But her daughter will always pick the BlackBerry.

So the question is, what are we teaching our children here? There is a fine line between enough and too much technology…..

NECC 2006

Various people have started blogging about NECC 2006, in San Diego this year, such as David Warlick and Julie Lindsay, and see also this technorati search. I will be there as well, as the chair of SIGHC (special interest group on handheld computing). It is funny to see how people are getting geared up to go, talking about how sessions are going to be podcast and blogged about, stuff being aggregated in browsers like hitchhikr, people’s emails being clogged with “visit us at booth x” messages etc. etc. While this kind of coverage will be great for NECC and valuable for people who won’t be able to attend, some of these people may be missing the most important eason to go to NECC: to meet, learn from, and network with people face-to-face. Technology can, and should have a role in this process, but to put it in Thackara’s words, ” The best Internet tools… are an extension of – not a replacement for- face-to-face exchanges” (In the bubble, p. 145).

What I’m really looking forward to is meeting up with the people from around the world whom I communicate and work with throughout the year. Many of them I only see at NECC. I’m sure I will go to as many sessions as possible, hang out on the trade floor, and be completely overwhelmed with information. Therefore, I’m not going to worry about podcasting or blogging while I’m in San Diego, and not fall victim to a case of continuous partial attention. I may look up some things that other people have to say about sessions I attended and the like, but not until AFTER the conference.

Hope to see many of you in San Diego, only two more weeks….

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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.