Continuous Partial Attention

I’m sorry, what were we talking about? Wait a sec’ while I close down a few IMs. Oops, you still there? Did you email me on that? Hold on, my kid just walked into my office. Hey, what did the speaker just say? I was checking my Blackberry.

From the 2005 O’Reilly Supernova, Linda Stone talks about how multi-tasking has become continuous partial attention. The notes are a little rough, but you’ll get the idea.

Pop quiz. It’s okay to answer “yes” to a question even if you’re contradicting an earlier answer:

  • Technology has improved my life
  • Technology has harmed my quality of life
  • I pay full attention to people when they talk to me, when I am in meetings, when I work
  • I pay partial attention to what I’m doing and I’m scanning my devices or software for other inputs
  • Technology sets me free
  • Technology enslaves me

In 1997 I coined the phrase “continuous partial attention”. For almost two decades, continuous partial attention has been a way of life to cope and keep up with responsibilities and relationships. We’ve stretched our attention bandwidth to upper limits. We think that if tech has a lot of bandwidth then we do, too.

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