(Some) Attention Must Be Paid!

The recent emerging Technology Conference in San Diego--a lively gathering of geeks and entrepreneurs building companies and tools for the Web--took "The Attention Economy" as its theme. Naturally, several speakers emphasized ways that companies could prosper in the scrum of technologies targeting our minds, eyeballs and wallets. But one of the most interesting talks came from a former Apple and Microsoft executive named Linda Stone. Her emphasis was less economic than social. It was a plea to consider an epidemic she identified as continuous partial attention.

She couldn't have picked a more perfect audience. During the presentations the faces of at least half the crowd were lit with the spooky reflection of the laptops open before them. Those without computers would periodically bow their heads to the palmtop shrine of the BlackBerry. Every speaker was competing with the distractions of e-mail, instant messaging, Web surfing, online bill paying, blogging and an Internet chat "back channel" where conferencees supplied snarky commentary on the speakers. Stone nailed the behavior so precisely that some audience members actually raised their faces and started listening intently.

Stone first noticed the syndrome a decade ago when she was creating a product for Microsoft that let people interact in a "virtual world." She found that her test users wanted to fade in and out while conducting other activities. This turns out to be the way most of us work--and live--today. With an open communications channel the e-mail keeps flowing, the instant messages keep interrupting and the Web feeds keep coming. CPA stems from our desire, Stone says, to be "a live node on the network."

If you keep your balance, such bifurcation can be useful. Last week I visited the Google offices in New York City and saw that a lot of the engineers there each had two large monitors, spread before them like butterfly wings. On one side was the code they were crunching and on the other were applications like e-mail, messaging and Web surfing. Sometimes, I was told, Googlites use that pane to conduct persistent conversations with collaborators on the West Coast.

But there's a problem in the workplace when the interruptions intrude on tasks that require real concentration or quiet reflection. And there's an even bigger problem when our bubble of connectedness stretches to ensnare us no matter where we are. A live BlackBerry or even a switched-on mobile phone is an admission that your commitment to your current activity is as fickle as Renée Zellweger's wedding vows. Your world turns into a never-ending cocktail party where you're always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner. The anxiety is contagious: anyone who winds up talking to a person infected with CPA feels like he or she is accepting an Oscar, and at any moment the music might stop the speech.

In her talk, Stone was careful to acknowledge the benefits of perpetual contact. But her message is that the balance has tilted way too far toward distraction, creating a sense of constant crisis. "We're not ever in a place where we can make a commitment to anything," she explained to me when I called her a few days later. "Constantly being accessible makes you in accessible." All so true. But during our conversation, some auditory clues led me to ask her one more question. "Linda," I asked, "are you taking this interview while driving your car?" She admitted that she was. But as long as she didn't have to slam the brakes or dodge a pedestrian, I had her continuous partial attention.