Bite-Size Media: Is Continuous Partial Attention really bad?


I'm addicted to Apple Crisps When I was a kid, I would mentally wander off all of the time, missing entire lectures in school. It took all of the energy I could muster up to concentrate long enough to get through a chapter of a book...mid-paragraph a word or a sentence would trigger me off. My eyes would skim the rest of the chapter and, when I came back to reality, would have to go back to my starting point and try again. In order to combat it, I would try all sorts of techniques: read aloud, pausing after every sentence or two to ponder it and discuss (with myself) the depth of it, highlighting important sections and making notes in the margins...

...eventually, I (mostly) trained myself to be able to sit and concentrate when it was necessary and became quite proficient at it. In university, I would read through reams of studies and periodicals for each of my term papers. I graduated on the Dean's List with a near perfect GPA (3.92) and had presented multiple papers at graduate conferences as an undergrad. My depth of research even led to being hired by several Ph.D. students as a research assistant. I ended up loving it.

But now...now I am in a world where bite-sized and continuous partial attention prevails. For someone who hasn't spent most of her life training herself to be focused, it looks to be getting more and more difficult. There seems to be more information than ever and our growing access to it makes it more and more difficult to wade through the cruft to get to the nuggets. With IQ's falling off, productivity plummeting and a general rise in the bite-sized culture, all signs are pointing towards a world full of people with ADD or worse.

Would it surprise you to know that this 'issue' isn't a new one? In 1971, Herbert Simon noticed a disturbing trend towards information overload:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

Pre-world wide web. Pre-blogs. Pre-twitter. We already had attention deficit issues and Simon called for an efficient allocation of that attention.

At each stage in our history, technology has upped the ante for information sources. In 1440, Gutenberg's invention of the printing press allowed for mass production of the printed word, so that by 1499, over 15 million books had been press printed, representing 30 thousand titles (interesting to note the Chinese had invented their own printing press in 1041). The computer, with roots back to 3000bc (again a Chinese invention, The Abacus), steadily advanced until it was connected together (by a series of tubes?) by Vint Cerf's internet in 1973 (based on Metcalfe's law), which was then democratized by the PC Modem in 1977 (allowing home computers to connect), which led to Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the world wide web in 1991.

Each of these steps as well as the inventions of the publishing tools that followed allowed for more and more people to publish more and more information. We went from a handful of people, usually with lots of money and influence, controlling the means to publishing content to anyone with access to the computer with the means to publish content. With inventions like the $100 laptop and the goal for ubiquitous wifi, the means to publishing becomes even more accessible.

And at each stage, it gets tougher and tougher to wade through the content to get information. So we skim and rely on search engines, curation services and meme trackers to help us focus. And even the advancement of these tools has been interesting. Tell me that in 1973 when Vint Cerf envisioned the internet that he would have foreseen Google or Wikipedia or Tagging. These businesses, like most smart businesses, address the needs of people in emerging economies. You can read an entirely riveting overview of the history of search here. As soon as information is emerging past a level comfortable enough to ingest it, tools have emerged to index, organize, control and curate it. We continue to see a widening of information production, followed shortly thereafter by a narrowing of portals in which to organize it, then the widening again. And so on. Like waves, it crests and rests, from chaos to control again back to chaos then control.

But the beauty of it is that we seem to cope. And, at each stage, we seem to, somehow find our way through the cruft eventually. Right now, the answer to wading through seems to be the bite-sized bits. As Steven Johnson says, "The truth is, we have more snacks now only because the menu itself has gotten longer."

It sounds a little like evolution to me. Although everyone, depending on their access levels is at a different level, we are all riding the wave. Early adopters 'discover' these tools early on, when they are incredibly raw and rough and figuring out the best way to solve an issue. The tools then improve to a level that is fit for an intermediate audience, who help hone it even more. This is where the data becomes crucial. Early stage feedback is usually one-on-one mixed with a vision mixed with specific attention to user behaviour. Mid-stage feedback is, really, about taking the data to the next level to create more personalized experiences as well as improving the system overall to suit the average. Google did this. Last.fm is doing this. DIGG is starting to think about this in interesting ways. We are starting to talk about this with Ma.gnolia (although, we are still working through the first stage in many ways). Look at this pain point as a way to really explore the concepts around Attention data.

I received an email from a reader who was concerned about my elation with Twitter's information overload. He said, "It's like saying that because water is good for you, 100 glasses is better." Sure. Biologically, drinking 100 glasses of water per day is impossible, but what if, along the way, our bodies evolved to the point that we could and it was better for us? Sure, that seems implausible right now and even ridiculous. And right now, our brains could not handle all of the information in the world. We couldn't calculate. Our heads would probably overheat and explode. But it feels, to me, anyway, that as time goes on, we feel that squeeze of "Too Much Information!", then tools come along that help us through it and we cope again. And, maybe, that is leading us to a point sometime in the far future of being able to handle all of the world's information, even the emotions and the biases that go along with it. It's a science fiction fantasy, but a glance over the past hundred years would lead to that probability.

Personally, I think that there are many different types of brains in the world. Those that require linear, logical thinking. They do awesome on traditional IQ tests, SATs, LSATs, etc. They are great at focusing in on one piece of the puzzle and coming up with solutions. Information overload would be a huge distraction from the task, but they are usually quite adept at filtering it out. Then there are also those that think very abstractly and that can piece together seemingly unrelated data points to uncover new frontiers. These are the explorers, the radical free thinkers. They quite often have dropped out (or been kicked out) of post-secondary institutions. They often make no sense. Chris is one of these. He's constantly distracted. Constantly. All over the place. But he thrives on too much information and comes out with these amazing visions that blow me away.

Me, I'm an information broker. I reside somewhere in between the logical and the explorer never quite able to pioneer or to compute. But I'm really good at understanding, then translating the information into more actionable items. The opportunist/entrepreneurial brain is similar to the information broker brain, but it takes that translation and creates tools that help people cope with both ends of the spectrum. All 'types' of brains are necessary to get anything done, but the explorers are often undervalued and misunderstood (throughout history, they have often died penniless, having the opportunists and information brokers taking their ideas and profiting). I believe the outcry on the idea of continuous partial attention today is equally misunderstood and undervalued.

Confusion can be good. Lack of the feeling of security can be freeing. Embracing the chaos can open new doors. And there is always the chance that it could lead nowhere, yes. But that is a lesson in itself.

Information overload is painful, yes, but it is necessary, I believe, for our personal advancement. Some will feel the pain more than others, but in that pain, we find opportunity. And, if history is any indicator of the future, the next step after taming the latest barrage of information will be opening the floodgates wider.

:bonus: Stowe Boyd has an interesting presentation entitled Overload, Shmoverload where he explores some of the concepts around this space.

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