Modern Times: Is anybody (partly) there?

In this week's Modern Times column, Corin Faife looks at how our 21st century lives are turning into one long stream of continuous, disjointed, fleeting interactions. Technology was supposed to save us time, instead, everyone is too busy doing a thousand things at once except, of course, those that matter. Time to stop the madness?

Modern Times, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 18:01 - 0 Comments

By Corin Faife

By Corin Faife

CPA? No, CPP!

Amongst the smart, savvy, technologically connected professionals of today’s time-starved world, CPA seems to be the affliction du jour. In case you haven’t heard of it, it stands for Continuous Partial Attention, a phrase coined by former Apple and Microsoft senior executive Linda Stone to describe the state of constantly splitting your attention between multiple information sources, whilst rarely if ever devoting full concentration to a single one.

CPA intrudes itself into all areas of life but is especially prevalent in the workplace. Now that more and more of us spend a good part of our working lives in front of a computer terminal, the temptation for distraction is greater than ever: a study by a University of California professor focusing on informational workers found that, on average, people switched activities every 3 minutes (from emailing to making phone calls say, or browsing web pages to working on a spreadsheet), and switched to a different project entirely every 11 minutes.

Office workers are spending so much time trying to do everything that they are unable to focus on anything, which is bad news for everyone in the workplace – except maybe the host of productivity gurus who have sprung up to advise management on how to get the most out of their employees. Little by little though, the same problems are extending beyond the workplace and into the personal sphere of our lives.

As the new generation of smartphones begins to phase out the older voice- and SMS-only models, we are seeing the real possibility of spending every waking hour in the company of a our entire cohort of friends and acquaintances, trading instant messages, sharing links, pictures and videos, broadcasting thoughts and feelings.

It’s less a case of continuous partial attention, and more a case of continuous partial presence – the state of dividing our very being between a number of spaces, communication platforms and circles of friends. And the time and effort needed to keep tabs on the myriad short duration interactions is eating into the time we would spend on more roundly developed social pursuits.

Correspondingly, moments of holding someone’s undivided attention are becoming ever more fleeting. Sending and receiving text messages during meals is increasingly common, particularly, so it seems, in the family environment (I say this based not only on the experiences of my personal life, but from observations in the numerous restaurants in which I’ve worked).

The same metrics of competition that we see in the world of online media start to impose themselves on social interaction: the challenge is to hold the attention of an audience that can switch to any of a thousand other stations in an instant.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of criticising a shift in established values a priori, and we should avoid such reactionary opposition here; given the rapidity with which social networking has gone from nascent to pervasive, there is little data on how it is materially changing our psychology, and we may have to wait many years for such.

However, various analyses suggest that it may not be for the good, among them Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, in which the author argues that the move towards rapid, diffuse and cursory communication is eroding the space for more sustained creative thought. Continuous partial presence is part of this, a space-filler which keeps us from accessing the unimpeded mental space necessary for imagination and speculation.

Personally, I have the feeling that the past 5 years, and maybe the 5 to come, resemble something of a social networking binge. There has been an unfettered embrace of instant and social communication technologies with little focus on the need for self-restraint, and an overemphasis on sharing with scant regard for privacy.

As we see the further integration of Facebook (or whatever replaces it) with our lives, the likely outcome is either that a more comprehensive set of norms and values will emerge in order to protect the emotional well-being of users, or that we will see a small-scale exodus as more individuals consciously ‘switch off’ from communication channels. One way or another, it will only be then that we can stop chattering and re-learn to enjoy the silence.

Corin Faife is a writer and activist. His ‘Modern Times’ column will appear every first Tuesday of the month.

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