Monday, February 12, 2007

Who is Linda Stone and why should we listen to her?

The link above is not live. If this post interests you there will be a link to Linda later on in the post.

Here's the preamble:

My Friend Mark Safranski(ZenPundit) alerted me to The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2007 which contains as Idea #7 a description by Linda Stone of her extremely apt phrase for our chaotic times: "Continuous Partial Attention (CPA)" .

I think Linda's phrase ranks right up there with Information Anxiety and Future Shock in drawing our attention to how technology is creating a condition I call "too much stuff - too little time" which gets worse as the dilemma of information overload and attention scarcity continues unabated.

Although she first coined the phrase CPA in 1997 during her work at Microsoft, I first heard Linda use it in a speech she gave at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference last year.The entire talk (28 min.) is worth listening to and you can download it to your playlist or listen to it here: IT Conversations: Linda Stone

Here's an abstract of Linda's concept of CPA

"This constant checking of handheld electronic devices has become epidemic, and it illustrates what I call 'continuous partial attention.' Although continuous partial attention appears to mimic that much discussed behavior, multitasking, it springs from a different impulse. When we multitask, we are trying to be more productive and more efficient, giving equal priority to all the things we do—simultaneously filing or copying papers, talking on the phone, eating lunch, and so forth. Multitasking rarely requires much cognitive processing, because the tasks involved are fairly automatic. Continuous partial attention, by contrast, involves constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing. It’s an adaptive behavior that has emerged over the past two decades, in stride with Web-based and mobile computing, and it connects us to a galaxy of possibilities all day every day. The assumption behind the behavior is that personal bandwidth can match the endless bandwidth technology offers."

Stone argues that personal bandwidth is not up to the task and, as a result, a backlash to continuous partial attention has already started. She also worries that information overload will burn people out much more quickly as they strain to keep up with an increasing number of information sources all screaming for attention.

It has been my passion since I began posting on this blog 10 months ago to seek ways to provide solutions to this dilemma, solutions which I believe rest on the ideal developed years ago by the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. His axiom " Less is more" is my guiding principle.

As I find useful tools for compressing and synthesizing the chaos of content on the Internet I will share them with you, so you won't have to feel like this guy who obviously is suffering from CPA!


mark said...

hi Dave,

Thanks for the link. I think you are on the right track with visualization - I just had an unrelated exchange on that issue with a former IC analyst - it is going to become a vital information management/communication/analytical tool.

The hypart reminds me somewhat of the work of Gustav Klutsis, a Latvian artist who pioneered montage art as a futuristic "revolutionary" propaganda form in the 1920's ( naturally, Stalin, the father of socialist realism, had Klutsis shot in the thirties).

Jeff Drouin said...

While I haven't had a chance to read deeply in your blog yet, I'm glad to see that someone is thinking about CPA (though I never heard the term before). I find it very difficult to focus due to the influences that Stone describes.

However, how do you go about finding and correctly identifying CPA? Have you formulated thoughts yet on how to address the problem?

papadavo said...

Jeff and Mark: My children and grandchildren give me rudimentary generational lenses through which to detect and consider CPA (both as a malaise as Linda Stone would have it and as a "multitasking" benefit by rewiring of the mind as I see it being displayed by my grandkids)

I believe I see a generational trend co-evolving between the "advance" of IC technology and the phenomena of CPA - and I think it is possible that our youngest cohort is better able to distinguish signal from noise and thus extract useful information from cacaphony than their elders.

my approach is to find ways to distill/synthesize the broader spectrum of content vying for our attention into smaller compressed segments of knowledge/knowhow that can serve as signals to awareness and memory links to "nuggets" we can bring to mind and integrate for our benefit and for sharing with others.

Alan Kay famously said " Perspective is worth 80 IQ points" and my view of CPA is that its identification and value addition to our mental "arsenal" in our technology-aided evolutionary quest lies in the power of visualized synthesis as a way to "position" the products of synthesis in an understandable map of context.

I think this mapping process can be developed to serve novice and master alike and may very well be the visual equivalent of the koans
of Zen masters.
I intend to expand upon this meme of CPA in future posts.

Ken White said...


I heard several people speak recently on topics related to this, including Mihaly Cz(etc.)ly. If the characteristics of a "flow" state include losing track of time and complete attention, etc. then could CPA be considered a form on "anti-flow" or at least "not flow"?

And if "attention is the currency of leadership" (I heard this from Heifetz, not sure if it originated with him), then could giving and receiving only partial attention be considered antitheitcal to leadership?

I'm not trying to be a Luddite here, or oppose all forms of multitasking (there is music playing in the background as I type). However, if CPA becomes a prevalent form of behavior, will it diminish the capacity for leadership?

Or, in a more favorable formulation, who or what will educe others to give up CPA, and engage the full capacity of our limited brain processing and attention?




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