This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

December 14, 2006 - Continuous Partial Attention

So here's my 12 year old son, Max, talking on our cordless telephone to his sister, Maddy. She's calling from Germany.

He's also online, engaged in an Instant Message session, complete with video, with his friend, also named Max. This other Max is also a tween, only he lives in London. The two Maxes met on youtube.com, where both of them post their homemade claymation videos.

On the one hand, this is great stuff. It wasn't that many generations ago that members of the same family were forced to mail letters to each other. Now, my boy is carrying on two live international conversations -- at the same time.

I can't help but think that's a good thing, both for my son's intellectual development, and for the prospects for world peace.

On the other hand, I just ran across a great new phrase: "Continuous Partial Attention." It was coined by one Linda Stone, who has worked for two giants in the computer business: Apple and Microsoft.

Continuous Partial Attention is a state of heightened alertness, based on the constant monitoring of multiple inputs and stimuli. It started out as something that sounds very productive: multi-tasking. Or as she puts it, it is the desire to be a "live node on the network."

But sometimes, multi-tasking turns dysfunctional. Stone says, "ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is a dysfunctional variant of continuous partial attention."

Continuous Partial Attention means that you never give your full attention to anybody or anything. You never really listen, with your whole heart. Because you are now partially inhabiting cyberspace, you are only partially inhabiting real space.

You are not fully present. And there's something else: you always feel the gnawing, inescapable fear that you'll miss something.

In the business world, people are noticing that email, once a great tool for getting it done fast, has morphed into a black hole of employee time and energy. As a backlash, some companies have adopted "email free Fridays." For one day a week, people have to talk to each other, direct, face to face. Some CEO's suspect it might make people more creative.

Microsoft has established at least some meetings where everyone has to disarm at the door. No Blackberries. No iPods (or Zunes, now). No cellphones. No laptops. Just your own body and brains. For some, I have no doubt that this is utterly terrifying.

Stone also came up with another truly provocative notion: what's the ultimate aphrodisiac, the total turn-on in the new millennia?

Simple. The ultimate erotic experience is "committed, full attention focus." And when you think about that, it only makes sense. What is the experience of falling love but precisely that kind of utterly engaged rapture, when the beloved is the absolute center of the universe?

By contrast, one hears stories of people who go out on dates -- and spend the whole time talking to other people on their cell phones. Now, I understand, people even break up with each other via text messaging, which seems oddly appropriate.

Much of what drives people today is the realization that they've fallen into false community, a "network" that doesn't always translate into authentic connections.

It just might be the next bold new wave of living begins when people set down all their devices, back up slowly, turn around, and look at each other.

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