A Chat With Linda Stone

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Stowe Boyd, Contributor

May 11, 2006

9 Min Read

I had the chance to have a conversation with Linda Stone last week, after hearing her speak at the recent O'Reilly Etech conference, as I wrote about in Linda Stone: The New Tech Millenialism: I had the opportunity to listen to Linda Stone speak yesterday, at ETech. She is an articulate and persuasive exponent of a new tech millennialism, so much so that I really wanted to believe in her conclusions. But, in the final analysis, I don't.

What was she proposing? Linda is well-known for coining the term continuous partial attention, trying to describe the mindset that we have adopted in the always on, 24/7, totally connected society that we are wrapped up in. Linda's thesis is that CPA is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, CPA has evolved from our savannah-evolved ancestors' need to constantly scan the horizon for prey and predators, even while we were weaving baskets or grooming each other in the shade of an acacia tree. It is a behavior that is deeply wired into our brains, one of the most basic of human psychological repertoires. On the other hand, CPA drains our attentiveness away from the task at hand, and thereby degrading our performance and involvement.

Perhaps because of the conclusions of that piece, Linda seemed to be trying to get me to agree with her, more so than in the typical interview I have these days. I ended that piece with this statement

Linda's appeal to mindfulness -- to pay full attention to the people in the room with you -- appears to resonate with other trends, like the Get Things Done movement. But I still don't buy it, although I can see how it would be attractive to those who are focused on personal productivity instead of the much harder to quantify benefits of group solidarity and identity -- so I guess Linda wanted both to make clear what she really believes and to see if we really were in agreement.

She started by trying to clarify her thoughts on continuous partial attention (CPA) stating that CPA is not the disorder that is besetting us. The disorder is ADD, she says, while CPA is -- in small doses, anyway -- a sensible adaptive behavior to the always-on, crazybusy world we live in. But if we surrender to CPA, we lose something significant, she maintains, and an excess of CPA means we start to live life in a crisis management mode, and any manner of dangers appear when we don't pay attention to what is in front of us, and instead remain connected to the outside world.

In particular, Linda focused on the importance of paying attention to people as an aspect of building relationships. She talked about relationship building as one of the key benefits of staff meetings. When people turn off their phones, shut the screens of their PCs, and pay attention, she asserts that there is a different quality to the meeting, because people are incredibly responsive to the attention of others.

Still, maybe my sense of disagreement with Linda is some fundamental psychological issue. When I was chatting with her, I recalled my freshman physics class, where the professor simply talked too slow for me. This was in the early 70s so there were no laptops or sidekicks to help me while away the seemingly endless gaps between his words. So I listened to music on a pre-walkman cassette player, and read the text from my chemistry class. The professor actually came up to me after the third or fourth class, to ask me what I was up to, and I told him he spoke so slowly I was going to sleep, so I used this technique to remain -- paradoxically -- focused on the class. After I started to turn in A's he stopped worrying about it.

And perhaps Linda is right, on some level, about the relationship issue: if somehow I had been able to remain laser focused on the instructor, instead of having my mind wander, we might have had some life-changing relationship emerge. Instead I opted for a relationship-reducing path, but one that led to me meeting the near-term goal of getting an A in physics, as well as in chemistry. In fact I got straight A's that year, and made the Dean's list, and one of the tricks I used was time-slicing at every opportunity: reading my notes over for physics whever my calculus instructor was reviewing something I had down cold already.

Maybe this is what Linda considers a sensible application of CPA, not an excessive one. But my hunch is that a lot of the stuff that I think is sensible -- like IMing with colleagues about project A while on a telcon with other colleagues talking about project B -- would be over the line with Linda. However, I have surrendered to the crazybusy cycle, and instead of trying to turn back the clock, I am looking for a better clock: one with more hands, running on a rate faster than seconds. I am looking for better technology to save me before I fall off the edge I am dancing on. In a post yesterday (What's Missing: A Web 2.0 Critique), I called out for a better sort of personal/social information management tool. I know I need it, and if I do, there are millions of others out there looking for it.

Some of what Linda says seems like a request for better ettiquette surrounding social interaction in the always on world. Fine. But maybe the reason it sounds oldtimey to me is that I don't spend my time in large corporations, in staff meetings, or the like. I am a soloist, spending most of my time connected to people remotely, and that sense of connection, however tenuous, is all that I have. I have to remain in touch with my posse, or I have nothing but myself. There is no organization backing me up.

And because of my distance from the world of big enterprise, Linda's Four Eras model seems more of a parlor trick, or the sort of generational psycho-characterization that you find in People magazine. She suggests that in each of four generations, the basic motivations of people and their relationship to organizations have shifted [Note -- I got this wrong in the previous post, where I thought there were only three generations]:

  • 1945-1965: Institutional. The Ozzie & Harriet era, where the great majority of people believed that institutions would support us: give us jobs, protect us from harm, and create meaning in our lives. As a result, people were very loyal to the organizations they belonged to, to the point of excess, so that those that thought differently were shunned. This is the era of the mainframe.

  • 1965-1985: Entrepreneurial Corporate. The era of self-expression, where individuals focused on their own opportunities, and less on the organization as a whole. This led to the deterioration of commitment, and hence, lessened loyalties all around. This era saw the shift from mainframes to the PC.

  • 1985-2005: Collective Intelligence. The rise of the Internet led to a world all about connectedness, the rise of peer-to-peer technologies, and instant messaging. Paradoxically, all this connectedness leads, Stone asserts, to a narcissistic loneliness, where people are divided by the technologies that link them together.

    This is where the sociological abstraction ceases to convince, and becomes off-putting to me. I don't buy the paradox. I believe that the Web has not apparently made us more connected, but in fact does in fact connect us. It does not naturally lead to narcissism and loneliness, but instead to the global village, with all of its plusses and minusses. And so it's not surprising that I also fail to buy the arguments around the next era.

  • 2005-2025(?): Search for Protection. An era of self-organizing groups, bottom-up work (yes, I am down with that), but in which people's motivations are to be protected by the new organization. This is the reemergence of the organization, but in a different guise than the 50's. Rather than willy-nilly entrepreneurialism, Stone suggests that people will transition to "scanning for opportunities" -- a term I really like -- and a search for belonging.

So, I find that Linda's motivations were right on -- we do have more in common in our thinking than I believed before -- but I still remain convinced that on several key aspects of her world view, we differ. Perhaps because I am more ADD than her, and have spent a great deal of time as an independent crackpot outside the large corporations that molded her -- Apple, Microsoft, and so on -- I embrace the crazybusy lifestyle even while admitting it is addictive. I don't believe that the next era will pivot on the need for protection, and that the "new organization" will form the basis of a sense of belonging. My sense is that looser affiliations, and more of them, will increasingly define people's sense of self and their world of work. Yes, more bottom-up decision making and self-organizing groups; yes, more collective intelligence being harnessed rather than top-down autocratic decision making. But less, not more, loneliness. More fulfillment through connections, not narcissism.

Linda's final comments, though, resonate with me: she suggests that a company's DNA is based on the era they were "born," or founded. So Microsoft is a child of an earlier era, and that explains why it is having so much trouble accomodating this era, where Google is reveling in it. Microsoft is the new IBM.

And if we want to see how to operate in the world that is coming, Linda and I agree totally: look to the next generation of kids, since they will be the best at whatever adaptation is most critical for success in the world ahead. I guess I will have to start playing World of Warcraft, and buy a sidekick.

[Crossposted here.] [Photo courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media]

tags: linda+stone, oreilly+etech, ctc2006, continuous+partial+attention, crazybusy, ADD

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