Continuous Partial Attention

I was able to join Burt Lum, Todd Ogasawara and Bob Lew for lunch yesterday to talk geek. Conversation quickly turned to Twitter, the web widget of the week.

Burt and I are playing with it, but Todd and Bob were mystified. The Twitterers conceded that the “What Are You Doing?” thing could get old pretty quickly, but were at least having fun while it lasted.

Being the old-school web journaler that I am, I saw Twitter as the new, furthest end of the “personal publishing” spectrum. From periodic diary entries to daily blog posts to hourly one-line updates. But Burt came at it from the other end, seeing it as a form of “presence” — like the “status” entry in your instant messaging program. Twitter doesn’t neccessarily convey availability, but it’s a similar kind of indicator.

“I have no doubt some brainy sociologist is looking at stuff like e-mail and blogs and now Twitter and getting worried about the effects of all this distraction,” I said. “We’re getting so obsessed with keeping track of what others are doing, and telling everyone what we’re doing, that we’re not actually doing anything.”

“Look up ‘continuous partial attention,'” they said.

And wouldn’t you know, no sooner had I gotten back to my office and loaded half a dozen tabs into Firefox to check in on everything (from e-mail to activity logs to Twitter) did this excellent Kathy Sierra essay on Twitter and information overload turn up in Google Reader. The scribbled charts were a nice touch. And sure enough, she goes into “continuous partial attention,” and how it conflicts with another obsession of Web 2.0, “Getting Things Done.” We’re losing our “alone time.” We’re settling for passing familiarity with a hundred subjects but losing the ability to explore any one subject in depth. We can’t focus. We can’t get “in flow.”

Kathy cites Linda Stone, who’s apparently the go-to thinker on “continuous partial attention.” But philosophical geeks aren’t the only people pondering the kind of “omnipresence” expected in this modern world. Reading up on this stuff immediately reminded me of a recent, somewhat alarmist article in the Wall Street Journal on “BlackBerry orphans.” Kids everywhere are coming to resent their parents’ slavish attention to keeping in touch with everyone else rather than them, forgoing quality time to keep up with e-mail, IMs, Twitter, blogs…

C’mon kids. Let’s go to the park.

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