Attention, Distraction, Twitter

Most of the articles I’ve found discussing “continuous partial attention” use the term as a negative consequence of our multi-media environment. Tom Friedman, for example, laments that taxi drivers are now too busy multitasking to give their usual slice-of-life quotes to reporters.

Searching for a different viewpoint, I found a NYT article, called Meet The Life Hackers, which described the ways scientists and computer engineers were researching our new habits, habits that aren’t just about interruptions, but about social meaning:

This can actually be a positive feeling, inasmuch as the constant pinging makes us feel needed and desired. The reason many interruptions seem impossible to ignore is that they are about relationships – someone, or something, is calling out to us. It is why we have such complex emotions about the chaos of the modern office, feeling alternately drained by its demands and exhilarated when we successfully surf the flood.

Which, in turn, let me to another piece by Clive Thompson, a discussion about Twitter, and what he calls the technology’s “social sixth sense”:

When I see that my friend Misha is “waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop,” that’s not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

It’s like proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Taken at face value, Twitter is Tom Friedman’s biggest nightmare — lots of little one-line pings on your cell phone. It seems to be a technology that fits the very definition of “continuous partial attention.” But, as Thompson suggests, it’s possible that media cannot fully be understood without immersing one’s self in it — social media can be a tactile experience.

This, of course, is not a new idea. Walter Benjamin talked about tactility in his seminal piece, The Work Of Art…, where he compared the state of “distraction” created through media to the way we perceive architecture:

Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception – or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit.

So perhaps we are not examining the concept of continuous partial attention in the correct way. Most accounts of this idea are temporal — cubicle workers running through a series of 11 minute projects broken into short three minute tasks.

Maybe the value of continuous partial attention is the way it creates a social sixth sense, how, in Walter Benjamin’s words, it allows us to achieve reception in a state of distraction.


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