In a recent post, my fellow blogger Stowe Boyd talked about his conversations with Linda Stone, and their differing opinions on CPA—Continuous Partial Attention. I thought I’d weigh in with my thoughts. For what it’s worth, my degree in anthropology makes this discussion especially interesting for me.
In her keynote at CTC this year, Linda talked about the difference between CPA and multi-tasking. She noted that multi-tasking is mainly designed to make us more productive and efficient, whereas CPA is about paying attention to everything, but only partially—we are constantly “scanning” the world around us, to avoid missing the good stuff, and to show the world that we are “always on” and available. As she describes it, CPA lets us keep one primary act in focus, while all the while scanning the rest of the inputs around us, just in case. The goal, she says, is to show that we are connected to the world we all live in—and the more connections we have, the more status we have, too.
Linda sees CPA as a transitional state, whereas Stowe argues it’s actually a return to pre-industrial days, when human beings, presumably, were forced by the harshness of the world around them to be constantly vigilant—literally, to scan the horizon for inputs on benefits (game, berries) and threats (predators, enemies). I would suggest there are in fact plenty of people in the world today still doing this—some for benign reasons, but most because they live in unstable environments (war zones, areas of high crime, etc.) Luckily for most of us in the developed world, today, instead of scanning the physical environment, we scan the technological one—constantly manning multiple phones, e-mail, IM, etc.. Still, the aim, while typically not life-threatening or supporting, is roughly the same.
But there’s something missing from this discussion. If multi-tasking isn’t CPA (and I agree it isn’t), CPA doesn’t entirely define what’s happened to us in the past few years when it comes to communications. It’s not just that we are actively scanning our contacts through technology. We are also constantly being interrupted by other people who are scanning us—and thus reacting to everything we scan. That’s where the chaos comes in.
I believe CPA is, as Stowe says, a basic human skill. But it is also purposeful—whereas being interrupted is not. CPA in and of itself does not have to be negatively stressful; think of the soccer player who constantly monitors the playing field even while intently dribbling the ball toward the goal, or the surgeon who is focused completely on the repair at hand yet constantly aware of underlying cues to the patient’s well being. What’s stressful—what’s causing us, as Linda says, to be hooked on sleep aids and Prozac—is the sense that all inputs are equally important. That’s not CPA—that’s constant interruption. Not being able to prioritize among those interruptions actually renders CPA less useful, by a lot.
This is where new technologies can help—especially presence information. Being able to tell people whether you want to be interrupted can change the CPA game, making us better able to “scan” the environment, without having to react to it 24/7. That’s really the key; knowing what’s important versus what’s not. Stating your “presence”—you’re willingness to take a call or text message—lets interrupters know how and when to reach you, so that what they need to say is prioritized in advance. I think it meets Linda’s goal of having technology really improve the quality of life.
Of course, adapting to presence requires thought and training on both sides—the person setting the state, and the person responding to it. In future posts, I’ll explore some of the cultural and managerial challenges the new technology poses—as well as the benefits it brings.
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