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7/7/2006
01:37 PM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Having the Presence to Control Constant Interruption

People have probably been multi-tasking forever, but I think it’s fair to say that the amount of multi-tasking we do (both how often we do it during the course of the day, and the number of task we juggle at a time) is growing. Thank technology for that—and not just IT, but all types of technology. Today, we can easily talk to a distant relative (on the phone) while we do our laundry (in the machine), cook dinner (in the microwave) and plan the next day’s events (on our PC); it was harder to do all four of those things at once when “talking” to someone far away meant tending a fire and sending smoke signals; washing clothes meant leaning over a basin of water and scrubbing; cooking dinner meant butchering game and peeling vegetables, then watching them closely over an open flame; and planning involved imagination and memory.

The same is true for Linda Stone’s notion of Continuous Partial Attention, or CPA—although it’s likely that humans have forever had to pay continuous, partial attention to their environment, the environment they’re paying attention to continues to expand, so that it now includes areas well beyond a person’s physical reach.

But the biggest problem with this growth isn’t so much the number of tasks we must juggle (in multi-tasking) or monitor (via CPA), it’s the fact that our juggling and monitoring processes are being constantly interrupted.

Think about it: Multi-tasking means doing several things at once; it should not mean having to respond to multiple requests at once—that’s something else (say, multi-communicating). Same goes for CPA: It does not, by definition, mean monitoring queries and conversations with multiple people—it mean monitoring one’s environment for cues about what’s important, and what’s not. Those cues need not be coming from other people, and they should not be responded to unless those other people have something really important to say.

But thanks to ever-expanding communications technologies, ours is a society of ever-increasing human interruption. We talk on the phone while simultaneously e-mailing and IMing other people—sometimes several other people at once. Some of us even juggle multiple people on the phone (one on a landline, another on a cell, and let’s not forget about call waiting). The problem occurs when such interactions happen not because we want them to—not because we’ve chosen to multi-task in this way—but because we have to; that is, someone e-mails, calls or IMs us, and we feel the need to engage them immediately. In this regard, I would argue that constant communications are actually undermining our ability to multi-task and sustain CPA.

What to do about that? Well, presence should help. That’s because presence tells people whether you’re willing to be interrupted in the first place. Not “available” on IM? Can’t be interrupted by it. On the phone? Telephone presence indicators take away the need for call waiting or juggling multiple phone calls. Offline? E-mails won’t get to you immediately, and the sender knows it.

But there are problems with presence, too, and they fall into two categories:

People setting presence do it badly, forgetting to say they’re away when they aren’t available or forward phone calls to the right phone at the right time. This has caused many people to ignore presence information because they assume it’s wrong. And that, of course, defeats the purpose. Some presence vendors are looking at ways to better automatically set presence notification, based on the user’s activity and calendar information (taking things one step beyond “idle”), but users ultimately need to take responsibility for setting proper presence states. This is partly a matter of education, and partly one of changing behavior, but it must happen.

The flip side is that people sending messages to contacts with open presence states expect an immediate answer. If you say you’re available on IM, you better respond to an incoming message or the sender may think you’re intentionally ignoring him. This puts the onus on users to respond to incoming communications immediately, an issue we’ve all decried at one time or another; the difference is that now you need to do it only when you’ve consciously decided that you will—and notified your contacts of that fact via your presence states.

Setting multiple availability states essentially tells people that you’re willing to multi-communicate (that is, juggle not multiple tasks, but multiple “conversations”), and that you’re willing to continuously give them at least partial attention. It takes both multi-tasking and CPA to new levels, but it also gives us at least a little control over the constant interruptions in our lives.

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