Continous Partial Attention
continuous partial attention : “The modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything.”
Have you ever woken up in the dark of night from a dead sleep, the nagging sensation that ‘I must check to see if everything is ok’ clouding your mind and quickening your pulse, your heart racing out of nowhere as you fumble around for your phone? As your fingers struggle to remember your password, your eyes adjusting to the harsh blue screen glaring in the dark, what had seconds ago been a restful sleep suddenly turns into yet another restless night spent wandering the online abyss (And no, I am not referring to the dark corners of the web. I’m talking about my Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds, plus the endless list of fascinating articles that scream to be read right now).
Am I the only human being on the planet who is increasingly frustrated with this addictive pattern in their life? It’s ok to sheepishly nod, joining me in agreement – I’m the pot and the kettle calling myself black, in this situation.
While it’s relevant, yet not ultimately important, to consider the larger season of sleeplessness befalling my family as we raise a 14-month little girl who is still teething, needing the comfort of Mom and Dad’s presence nightly, another nagging sensation, this one less easily shaken off, fills my mind with a vague unsettledness.
Ironically, I turn to my phone and start to read online about my struggle, finding a diverse chorus of voices swelling louder, a digital consensus of sorts emerging with a unified voice: Something is off with our increasing reliance upon, need for, and largely unchecked addiction with the technology in our hands. Something is off inside of us, more disturbingly so.
If this consensus is true, what is the underlying reality driving the nature of technology to be ever more present within our lives? And why do we continue to allow this digital struggle for our time to grow? What must be done?
A September 2014 Time magazine cover story entitled “Never Offline,” on the development and release of the Apple Watch, a triumph in wearable technology, first sounded the alarm bells internally for me. For an article written celebrating the release of another tremendous Apple technological advance, it was noticeably somber in tone: “We’re used to technology being safely Other, but the Apple Watch wants to snuggle up and become part of your Self. This is technology, after being repeatedly repulsed, finally establishing a new beachhead. To wear a device as powerful as the Apple Watch makes you feel ever so slightly post human. This is new and slightly unnerving. When technologies get adopted as fast as we tend to adopt Apple’s products, there are always unintended consequences…Nobody anticipated the way iPhones exert a constant gravitational tug on our attention…When you’re carrying a smartphone, your attention is never entirely undivided.” And now, the Apple Watch brings that gravitational tug outside of our pocket, attaching it directly to our bodies? Yikes.
Before you dismiss Grossman and Vella’s concerns as alarmist, consider the following: Have I allowed this technological creep in my life? If I am honest, the question must shift in specificity in my life, more accurately asking How have I allowed this technological creep in my life? Again, I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this growing struggle. Recent publications seem to agree with my confession.
The New York Times magazine found it newsworthy recently to interview a neurologist and sleep consultant about “How to Fall Asleep” given the ubiquitous presence of our iPhones with us in bed each night. Fast Company triumphed the design of a dumb phone that only makes calls as an escape from the distraction of endless notification pings, essentially concluding that we need a second phone to free us from the tether of our smartphones. A piece on Medium entitled “Why Can’t We Read Anymore?” most recently filled many of our Facebook feeds with the disconcerting realisation that we are increasingly a culture that isn’t able to concentrate long enough to read entire books anymore, largely due to the habitual need for constant digital stimulation. This is but a small sampling of the flood of news that describes our digital reality – and distressing struggle with said reality – today.
Linda Stone, a longtime tech executive with Apple and Microsoft Research in the 1980’s and 1990’s, first coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe “the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything.” Interviewed in The Atlantic magazine in 2013, Stone’s commentary on the distractive potential of smartphones in early-childhood development provides a provocative hypothesis for the reason why we continue to allow technology to usurp our time and attention. She argues, “We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with whatever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, ‘That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be!’…Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy…What we’re doing now is modelling a primary relationship with screens, and a lack of contact with people.”
If Stone is onto something (and unfortunately, I think she is), then there is a disturbingly direct link between our inability to detach from technology’s presence, and the addictive behaviours and lack of focus our children inherit from imitating us. Our technological fascinations model preferences that embed themselves deep within the unformed psyches of our children, and yet we place blame upon our kids for failing to distinguish their immature fascinations from our ‘acceptable’ pursuit of them as adults. Who does the onus truly lie with? Perhaps the nature of fascination itself, the power to “attract the strong attention and interest of someone,” must be practiced with our children as the recipients themselves of our continuous strong attention and interest.
At least, that’s the conclusion my iPhone reached for me.