Wet talked last night with Linda Stone about her idea of continuous partial attention. She says it is different from multi-tasking.

Linda Stone
From Inc.com

It's not the same as multitasking; that's about trying to accomplish several things at once. With continuous partial attention, we're scanning incoming alerts for the one best thing to seize upon: "How can I tune in in a way that helps me sync up with the most interesting, or important, opportunity?

This is really relevant to some of the thoughts I've been having about the UI of mobile devices and how they fade in and out of your attention rather than being on or off like computer screens. Yes, you do this a bit with computers, but not nearly as seamlessly as mobile phones are integrated in the real world by advanced users.

Also, the IRC back channel at conferences or the multi-modal distance learning projects where you have a video of the speaker, the power point presentation, the chat, the wiki and the back channel going at the same time. It CAN be very overwhelming, but I think it's because we are conditioned to think that we need to understand all of the information that is being transmitted.

I think an interesting metaphor might be the difference between loss-less and lossy compression technology. There is so much information being transmitted and it doesn't matter if you everything exactly (or if you are getting exactly the same bits as someone else). You can glean from the fire-hose in the mode that makes the most sense for you. The trick is to get a picture of what is going on from a perspective that makes sense for you in a format that compresses well for you. I think that if we stop trying to "catch it all" which we are conditioned to do, and think more in terms of lossy compression and surfing parallel streams and multi-modes, maybe it is easier.

Also, we discussed last night now human brains are adapting to these changes and how probably younger generations will continue to grow up differently and interfaces and modes will adapt again to this new generation. This has a lot to do with the discussion on ADD.

Good entry in Smartmobs with more links.

11 Comments

The analogy makes sense to me. While there's plenty of data to suggest multi-tasking can be a major drain on productivity, cognitive psychology has also shown remarkable dual tasking capabilities with practice. That combined with a refined ability to assess the neediness automatically (also a result of practice) suggests that people will get better at this type of thing.

"wet talked" ?

Does this mean you were in the hot tub? or is it more analogous to talking in meat space?

Well, this is very interesting. I was jotting down some thoughts about this topic a while ago, while attending a biz communication workshop.
My point of view was about finding those key concepts that can make you rebuild the whole thing with as little info as possible. Archetypes (?).
To keep up with your metaphore, that would be like comparing lossy (or loss-less) image compression with vector graphics.
I'm not a neural net genius but I think the idea of "Data In, Rules Out" is pretty the same... ops, it looks like I'm not that original ;P

This just doesn't work for me at all. If I have more than one or two streams of information coming at me, I just can't pay attention to any, unless they're all in the same mode...

That is, if everything is textual, e.g. irc, email, and messaging, I can handle a bunch of threads simultaneously, but I can't hear anything that's going on around me or what people are saying to me verbally... Maybe it's a personality type issue...

My late Italian grandfather considered himself a genius and let me in on the secret of how to become one.

1. Turn on both the TV and the radio. (preferably talk radio)

2. Focus on both streams of data simultaneously until you can understand what's being communicated in each without missing a beat.

I can never do it right. I guess genius skips a few generations in my family. Grandpa would have loved the internet.

Personally, I'm notorious for not replying to text messages, turning off my mobile phone and not turning it on again, and not responding to people calling my name when I'm absorbed in some article on the net.

I don't even have ICQ/IM, only check my email once or twice a day, and when I hear the chimes on my phone that tell me a message has arrived, friends are often more concerned about immediately finding out what the message is than I am.

Don't you feel that there can be a loss of focus? I'm not unable to let discourse wash over me from multiple channels, but I wouldn't be able to say that I'm actively listening and comprehending anything in particular, let alone learning or contributing something. I have a feeling that immersing oneself in multiple information streams like that is kind of like junk food for the mind - lots of texture, but no value.

I guess at a cocktail party I'm more likely to find one person I like, and talk to them for a few hours, than to circulate around, meet everyone but not learn much about them.

At a recent conference I helped organize (ViDe) we ran 4 simultaneous tracks and webcast each one of them. I didn't observe this first-hand, but it was reported to me that people who couldn't decide which track to attend were going to one track and viewing others online via the local wireless network. Certainly made me feel less guilty about answering my emails during the presentations.

Regarding the IRC back channel at a conference/seminar where you have video, preso. chat, wiki, etc going on at the same time , Has anyone seen this work succesfully at a non-technology oriented conference or event? If so, I would be very interested in hearing about it

I examine the link between CPA and synchronization amplification (a means of real-time performance acceleration) at Get Real.

"CPA is a different kind of load-balancing algorithm. Some people think that the only practical way to work is to take a single task and grind away until it is done, and then (and only then) look around to determine what is the right next piece of work to do. The reality is that we need to be constantly scanning the horizon for events that are worthy of our attention. We can't a afford to stay heads down for hours or days at a stretch when critically important events may be occuring that could require us to immediately respond to them.

So, while first-in-first-out is a workable discipline for some situations (like super market check out lines), it fails drastically in some circumstances (like hospital emergency rooms).

Our work lives are increasingly like the ER and not the supermarket. So we will have to revert to a mindset that our earliest forebears must have applied while fashioning hunting gear, and with one eye scanning the savannah for predators and prey."

I've spent many years observing the behaviour of traders in foreign exchange dealing rooms from the early 80s.

It's a good place to glean lots on continuos partial attention, multi-tasking and the border between them.

(An aside: Another point to realise is:
These are folks who buy and sell views [1]
with fellow remote teleworkers. Since the early 80s. Largest turnover market -- US$3 trillion/day. [1] their views on where a currency is headed)

@2: a long time ago, geeks called human brain matter "wetware". @ 4 & 6 : I'm with you guys, more than one thing at a time is fine for teenagers and moms, but throw in some whirring industrial motors, a diesel generator and an air compressor, and you can theorize all you want about the savannah and the plains. There's lots of stuff (buses, compactors, "disposals", even Superman-themed amusement-park rides) that can kill or maim you in our modern world. Hence the emergency rooms. And who does it hurt when stock and bond traders (or casino gamblers) make an error due to corrupted information received aurally?

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