Continual Partial Attention

We live in a connected world, and it is a wonderful world. Twenty years ago it would have been hard to fathom that every bit of information we need could be found by clicking an app on a mobile phone.

This access to information is, of course, unlimited: trivia, a definition, personal background information, and specific information such as how do you compute IRR?, and, available at any time: an address to a destination to which you’re already on your way, or the next song on the playlist of a concert you’re attending.

When you think of it, there is barely an occasion where you have to ask anyone a question anymore.

And opinions?… well covered by social media as we all know.

While real-time access to information is one of the greatest achievements of our generation, it has also created the condition of continual partial attention.

What we originally thought was multi-tasking, has become a pattern of interruption from our many data modalities: text messaging, to phone calls, to email, to twitter, to text messaging, to live conversation, back to twitter to Facebook and back to text messaging.

Or the endless loop of topic-hoping, a great example of which is provided by Jordan Finkle @finkaboutit84

My buddy presented an opinion as a fact about the recent Deflategate scandal, which, of course, wrongly accuses Tom Brady of being anything other than a God. I, knowing my buddy, call his bluff and take to Google to reconcile this mess. He heads to to find and perpetuate the same BS writers he knows will support his claim and I go to the source and start reading up on the The Wells Report, as well as the Patriots side of the story, ‘The Wells Report in Context.’ Before we settle the argument, my friend, on, reads an alert about the LA Laker’s chances of winning the NBA lottery, which turns into a conversation about why players like going to Los Angeles (the weather, the lifestyle), which turns into a discussion about the new Entourage movie, which sends you to YouTube to watch the trailer, which sends you to HBOgo to refresh on the last season before the movie actually comes out. Before I can even finish reading about the convenient use of facts and logic in the Wells report or the lack of a tangible competitive advantage resulting from a difference in PSI levels as well as the overall problems with the structure of Wells’ argument, my friends don’t care about the original argument (or Brady’s integrity god dammit!) and are laughing at Turtle as he strikes out trying to get a girl’s phone number.

Continual partial attention in its finest form.

The craving for a media pick me up, that quick fix of information, or inspiration, multiple times an hour, is now a well formed habit. And, as we know from reading Nir Eyal’s blog, Nir and Far, habits like these change brain chemistry, and become exceedingly difficult to reverse.

Nowadays, nobody focuses long enough to get anything of true value done; for many from my generation, this is not how we grew up – this is not comfortable. Parents wonder how their kids will function in the working world, that is, of course, if anyone is willing to hire them in the first place. How will they get a job? Hell, can they stay focused in an interview long enough to get an offer? Many parents even feel like they have to remind their kids to keep their phones in their pocket during an interview. 

This is continual partial attention, and it is the topic of several of my recent conversations. And, in every one of them, I am surprised at the deep concern many have about how this behavior will permanently and negatively affect the way our society functions.

The world is ending.

Is it? Or will this behavior just become the new norm?

The truth is, the same level of negative sentiment existed before and during other great technological revolutions involving the dissemination of information, many of which I would argue had greater societal impact than the connected world of today.

The Guttenberg Press

Rearrangeable sets of letters, made out of metal, combined with a press, allowed information to be disseminated quickly and accurately for the first time in history. But, what sort of information would be spread? While the world would now become literate, there was deep concern by the Church, about the lack of control over censorship. In the minds of the clergy, the notion of broad dissemination of a secular idea was surely the beginning of the end. This is largely what made Martin Luther’s Reformation successful; in terms of execution, what Luther did would have been impossible without the press.

The Telephone

Before the telephone, people wrote letters, banged out a message on a drum or sent smoke signals…and of course there were carrier pigeons. But, these either took too long, were imprecise, or subject to environmental restrictions – fog trumps smoke! Despite the benefits of instant and ubiquitous communication, in the late 1800’s, people feared that others would listen into their conversations and that the telephone would only promote the spread of gossip. A common worry was also the noise of the ring, which many believed would make you deaf. The greatest concern, however, was the belief that the telephone would just be a source of, you guessed it, constant interruption!

The Television

As the number of homes with televisions increased from 0.4% in 1948 to 83.2% ten years later, evenings that had once been spent reading, conversing, and evolving familial relationships, were now spent in silence enjoying passive, often solitary, entertainment. The television was viewed by some as the biggest classroom in the world, and by opponents as eventually leading to declining school performance, distorted values, violence, and withdrawn and addictive behavior.

The Digital Age

As the digital age progressed and computers and the internet penetrated our homes, similar concerns were widely reported in the press. Some examples:

CNN – “Email ‘hurts IQ, more than pot’”

The Telegraph – “Facebook and MySpace generation ‘can not form relationships’”

The Atlantic – “Is Google Making US Stupid?”

Times of London – “Warning: brain on overload”

New York Times – “The Lure of Data: Is it Addictive?”

I think this Armageddon view is shaped by the fact that we’re smack in the middle of the transition between two eras, the ‘un-connected’ and the ‘always-on.’

Consider this, while the consumer internet created partial attention, it was the smart phone that made it continual. In the US, smart phone penetration grew from 25% in 2010, to 72% in 2014. Today, over 173 million adults own smartphones. If you were born after 1992 you may have some memory of being un-connected, but you lived most of your childhood and teen years always-on. This year’s college graduates were mostly born around 1992. More than likely, they will be interviewing with hiring managers who are 10 to 20 years older, and have lived a greater percentage of their lives un-connected. Those managers’ managers (as well as these graduates’ parents) lived the overwhelming majority of their lives un-connected. This creates the incompatibility. Ten years from now, in 2025, a greater percentage of those born in 1992 will be hiring managers, and then by 2035, most hiring managers (and most of the adult population) will have lived the majority, if not all of their lives, always-on.

Pandora’s box is open, we will never be less connected, and we will never be just as connected, but less often. And, no doubt there will be changes to the way our brains absorb information. But, there is no need to panic. As the always-on generation becomes the majority, continual partial attention will become the new norm and when it is, society will be simpatico, and the behavior we now observe as awkward and troubling will barely be noticed.

If you ask me, I say continual partial attention is already the new norm, and I for one accept it…and yes, in full disclosure, I am among the afflicted. How about you? Is continual partial attention driving societal decay, or are we looking at it only through the lens of this awkward transition?

Special thanks to Jordan Finkle @finkaboutit84, for assistance with this post