Are You Living In Constant Partial Attention?

Going online is compelling. There is so much to see and do, so many ways to connect. Maintaining your online presence while simultaneously navigating life requires something called continuous partial attention, according to Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive, who first coined the phrase. She defines continuous partial attention this way:

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention – continuously. It is motivated by a desire not to miss anything and to be a live node on the network – in touch and seen by others.”

It’s like having one foot in cyberspace and one foot in “meatspace” all the time. It’s not that easy to do, and occasionally you stumble trying to accomplish both. Stone goes on to say, “Continuous partial attention is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we’re in constant partial attention.” Stone calls attention “the most powerful tool of the human spirit.” She says you can enhance it through things like exercise and meditation, or you can “diffuse it through technologies such as email and Blackberries.”

Whether you call it autopilot or continuous partial attention, I’m not sure living this way is all it’s cracked up to be. Life is not best lived in “an artificial sense of constant crisis.”

When reading over Stone’s definition of continuous partial attention, I imagined a pinball machine and a little metallic ball getting thwacked by every new piece of data, careening from subject to subject, unable to stop moving at any one place for any appreciable amount of time. That visual reminded me of the constant energy and motion often exemplified by attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

If a person is in a constant state of partial attention, aren’t they also in a constant state of partial distraction?

The symptoms of ADD are an inability to maintain focus, to exhibit wandering attention with poor listening skills, and a tendency to overlook details. ADHD adds the component of hyperactivity, fidgeting, and an inability to remain still and calm. The causes of ADD and ADHD are thought to be primarily biological. But what if our tech-obsessed, hypermedia culture injects a component of nurture into this discussion of biology and nature?

When ADD and ADHD are biological (nature), their physical imperative for distractibility is difficult to overcome. But this media-driven (nurtured) continuous partial attention syndrome may create distractibility as compelling as ADD. On the one hand, your brain is switching from task to task like a Ping-Pong ball because of a neurological imperative. On the other hand, your brain is switching from task to task to task like a Ping-Pong ball because of a learned imperative. Dr. John Ratey, from Harvard Medical School and author of Delivered From Distractions, calls the latter pseudo-ADD or acquired ADD.
We may be teaching ourselves to remain in a continually distracted state, with our brains quickly learning the lesson.

The above is excerpted from chapter 2 in #Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology and Social Networking by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources.

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About Dr. Gregory Jantz

Dr. Gregory Jantz is the founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources, Inc., in Seattle, Washington. He is also the author of more than 20 self-help books - on topics ranging from eating disorders to depression - most recently a book on raising teenagers: "The Stranger In Your House." Married for 25 years to his wife, LaFon, Dr. Jantz is the proud father of two sons, Gregg and Benjamin.