Continuous Partial Attention

Clive Thompson has an outstanding article in today’s New York Times called Meet The Life Hackers.  He describes the problem that affects so many people today – the complete overload of digital information and interruptions that makes it difficult to get immersed in any project for an extended period of time.

Rather than simply describe the problem (which is where so many articles like this end), Thompson frames the issue as one that has been popularly called the need for “continuous partial attention” (coined by Linda Stone in 1997).  He then goes on to describe great research by Mary Czerwinski and Eric Horvitz that directly address this issue.

I’ve ranted in the past about how stupid my computer is.  We’re going to see a dramatic transformation in the way our computers “help us” over the next 20 years as more of this research begins to be embedded in the core technology that powers our “personal computing infrastructure” (pci).  In the same way that information systems and computer technologies have increasingly developed layers of abstraction, I predict we’ll start to see a similar abstraction layer between us and the rest of the universe that is trying to communicate with us digitally.  Instead of forcing us to be the ultimate router and arbiter of the priority of information (and interruption), our pci will learn how we work, gradually augment how information gets to us, and ultimately automate much of the information flow and our response.

We’re already seeing this in some very simple applications.  An extremely useful example is the automated elimination of spam.  Now – if we could turn these same spam elimination systems – which work automatically in the background (e.g. I use Postini and spam simply disappears – I never think about it anymore) – into “email prioritization systems” (e.g. spam has priority=null, email from Amy or my mother has priority=immediate, email from my partners has priority=high) where the priorities are automatically tuned by my pci based on my behavior things become more interesting.  Finally – add one more layer of abstraction – my pci knows when I am ready to received different priorities and presents them to me only when I’m ready (e.g. I always get interrupted by Amy or my mom, I sometimes get interrupted by my partners depending on the thing I’m working on, but it always comes at the top of the queue, etc.) – and you’re really getting into an interesting zone.  Of course, delivering it one time on the appropriate device (computer, cell phone, television, carrier pigeon) in the right location is a key part of this.

Once you extend this construct to all digital communication and interaction, you start to get some interesting things happening.  Which – of course – is only the beginning of the real transformation.  It’s going to take a while, but the way we do things today – and the way our pci works – sucks.