Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Continuous Partial... Look! A Bunny!

I've heard the term Continuous Partial Attention a few times recently. It was coined by Linda Stone. Some quotes and comments here on O'Reilly.

Partly it rings true. There are days, of course, when the email piles up and the cell phone vibrates and the Blackberry blinks and umpty-nine people walk into my cube looking for ring-around-the-whatever, etc. etc. and I think, "Is this what I am? A thrall to my toys and tools and a help-desk for everybody within range of my loud, annoying voice?"

But then I remember something. We humans are hunters as well as gatherers, and successful hunters are marked by skills that are very well defined by the term "continuous partial attention." If you are very, very focused on one thing -- let's say, spoor -- you won't pick up sounds. If you are only listening to the sounds of one kind of prey, you won't hear the sounds of other, possibly more valuable dinner-time meat.

Gathering, of course, rewards more single-attention-focus behavior. And the ultimate forms of gathering -- modern, mechanized, industrialized, assembly-line systems -- are ones in which we are each expected to be one thing, all the time, thank you. "Round peg, round hole." Sit down, shut up. You need continuous, full, single-task attention when you are only expected to do and be one thing every damned day for your whole working and family life.

What do you do? What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you plan to make of your life? What does your dad/mom do for a living? Where do you work? What does your company do? These are all questions that, more or less, presuppose a single answer.

But we've been told, for quite awhile now, that we'll all have a number of jobs and careers before we buy the big dirt nap. And if that's the case, if we will "gather" a number of types of rosebuds while we may, then aren't we, possibly, coming into a time when our hunter attributes are going to be more appropriate to success?

The landline telephone was supposed to be incredibly disruptive to our social well-being when it first came out. It would interrupt family time. Allow people whom we did not know to fracture the peace and tranquility of our domestic castle. It would encourage a breakdown of the wall between "business" and "home." Oh, dear! My whole life, me attention has been continuously parted by the telephone!
Sarcasm aside... perhaps it's a case of learning to cope. I've seen this in just the 15 years I've been involved in the wireless industry. In 1992, when I got into the business, people had no coping skills. The few people who had portable phones pretty much answered them every time they rang. Partly that was because so few people had them, and so few people had their numbers. By 1999, after the initial popular explosion, millions of people were carrying flip-phones, and most of them hadn't learned how to deal. Everyone was answering calls everywhere, mostly rudely, and they had to start reminding us to, "Please... silence your cell phones," before movies.

Now? In most places, our phones are on "vibrate" all the time. Most of us don't mind if a friend glances at a phone for a sec to see who it is on Caller ID, and then says, "I have to take this." The assumption is that it's the spouse or the boss. And we wait... because we have spouses and bosses, too. And cell phones. But if it's another call... we let it go to VM. And we don't much care. At least I don't. Either about checking mine, or you checking yours.

About four months ago I got a Blackberry-like Pocket PC that lets me surf the Web and check my work email and calendar at all times. Do I sometimes check it during a meeting when I should be listening? Yeah... if I'm waiting for an email that is (imo) more important than what's going on in the meeting. Do I see other people doing that, too? Yup. And if I need to repeat a question... NBD.

Hunting. Not gathering. Active. Not passive. Looking for spoor and listening to the sounds of the jungle. Lots of little sounds and the crackle of twigs and hoots and calls in the distance and smells and... you get the picture.

We aren't round pegs anymore. We are hunting for and pounding different pegs every day. The pace of change is only accelerating. Our ability to sense markers, to be verbs and consumers of verbs rather than trying to exist as nouns will help us to succeed.

Also... If you're looking for a cute bunny that shouldn't be hunted but helped to the stars, please take some time with the absolutely charming Orsinal Games.  The one in the upper left is "Winter Bells," and is just delightful. Many of them are, but there's just something about that bunny...

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