Keeping it Real in an Information Deluge
Did you know our brains can only process about 120 Kb per second and can only do so serially? Yet every day we are deluged with 34GB of information. We also spend close to 8 hours every day interacting with multiple screens at once. In addition, we deal with incessant alerts, pings, reminders and pop-ups, nudging us to pay attention or cognitively engage our mind. What we end up doing is often than just “multi-tasking”. Join us for a conversation with Linda Stone writer, speaker and consultant who coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” or CPA. If you think you are multi-tasking, you may actually be engaged in CPA. Find out what it means and what to do to conserve one of our most precious resources: our attention.
Guest: Linda Stone
Hosted by: Alexa Raad & Leslie Daigle
Alexa: [00:00:03] Welcome to TechSequences. Those of us who remember the world prior to the internet will recognize the difference between performing relatively routine tasks then, and now. Take, for example, the task of finding directions to a novel or distant destination.
Not that long ago, that task involved purchasing one or more maps and concentrating hard to read the minuscule texts to manually plan and follow the road, a few turns at a time. Back then newspapers, TV, and radio provided the news which we read, watched or listened to at our initiation.
Now many of us continually and obsessively check our phones for news tweets posts, et cetera. In addition alerts now stream in from incoming emails, texts, news, headlines, and calendar reminders. This is not by accident. Many of the online tools and services associated with these alerts and pop-ups were actively designed to capture and continually increase user engagement.
The internet is now an omnipresent functional, and unavoidable part of our daily lives. So although excessive internet use has not been recognized as a disorder by the world health organization or listed in a diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, it has entered our lexicon.
To provide some perspective, in 2020, US adults spent seven hours, 50 minutes per day, consuming digital media. That was up 15% from six hours and 49 minutes in 2019. Now some of it may legitimately be attributed to the impact of the pandemic in our lives, which made many people socially isolated and hence reliant on online communication for work and leisure.
But on the whole, we now spend the majority of our waking hours online, looking at and interacting with multiple screens at once. So it is fair to ask how this is affecting our brain and in turn our ability to pay and maintain attention. Why? Because attention is the most essential resource for our survival. At any given time, multiple automatic and subconscious processes in our brain function to decide what gets passed to conscious awareness.
For this to happen, millions of neurons are constantly monitoring the environment to select the most important things for us to focus on. These neurons are known as the attentional filter. Since our brains can process about 120 bits per second, this number defines a top limit of the volume of information we can pay conscious attention to at any one time.
According to a recent study by researchers at the university of California, San Diego, our brains are now deluged with 34 gigabytes of data every single day. That is about 28 million more times. Even assuming that we have 24 hours a day. Given the disparity between what we are bombarded with and what we can actually process, it is reasonable to ask, what are the consequences?
Leslie: [00:02:57] Linda Stone is a writer, speaker, and consultant who coined the phrase continuous partial attention in 1998. Linda also coined the phrases, email apnea, and screen apnea. Her work focuses on: the psychophysiology of our relationship with technology and how our relationship with technology can evolve; the Attention Project: trends and their strategic and consumer implications. Linda was at Apple computer from 1986 to 1993, working on multimedia hardware, software and publishing. In her last year at Apple Linda worked for then Apple CEO, John Sculley, on special projects.
In 1993, Linda joined Microsoft research under Nathan Myhrvold and Rick Rashid. She co-founded and directed the Virtual Worlds Group/ Social Computing group, researching online social life and virtual communities. During this time, she also taught as adjunct faculty in New York university’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.
In 2000, she became a Microsoft vice president under Steve Ballmer, working on industry relationships and Microsoft corporate culture. She left Microsoft in 2002. Linda served a six year term on the national board of the World Wildlife Fund, and is currently on the World Wildlife Fund national council.
She has also written in many major publications, including Wired the New York times and forums. Welcome Linda.
Linda Stone: [00:04:14] Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Leslie: [00:04:17] So we have all heard and probably actively practice multitasking where your attention is split between multiple tasks that you’re doing simultaneously.
You’ve made a distinction between simple and complex multitasking, and you’ve given the latter a name: continuous partial attention or CPA. How is continuous partial attention similar to or different than multitasking?
Linda Stone: [00:04:39] First I want to start with a little bit of context. In the nineties, a lot of us were starting to use cell phones very regularly, and people started talking about how they were constantly multitasking. Before the availability of all these technologies, multitasking actually meant eating lunch while working or stirring soup while looking at your child’s homework.
So it, it meant doing one task that was somewhat automatic. Like eating and another task that required cognition, this kind of multitasking was motivated by just wanting to get more done so we could have a little more free time so we could check more things off a list and be a little more efficient.
And cognitive scientists called this type of multitasking. Simple multitasking. What I started noticing a little later in the nineties is that every activity that we were doing simultaneously required cognition, we were texting and driving. We were writing an email and talking on the phone, you, by the way, I just want to ask you.
Do you notice when someone is talking on the phone to you while they’re writing an email? Is that something that you can tell?
Leslie: [00:06:17] I can’t imagine doing two textual things at the same time, so, you get the pauses, right? Because you’re not actually doing them both at the same time.
You’re doing a little of each and switching back and forth.
Linda Stone: [00:06:28] Yeah. Kids do this all the time. They’re texting while they’re answering a question, but are they anywhere, you know, where is their sense of, of presence? So, anyway, when we’re writing and talking on the phone, when we’re texting and driving, we’re not all there in either place.
And what we’re actually doing is. Rapidly switching between the two. So I wanted to differentiate between simple multitasking and this more stressful kind of multitasking. Which was doing two things at the same time that required cognition. So I gave this the name continuous partial attention or CPA for short.
And this type of multitasking is motivated by a belief that if we do it, we’ll be on top of everything. Meanwhile, we never get to the bottom of anything. So the cost of this is. We’re not present. We’re not present in anything we do. We don’t get to the bottom of things, but we believe somehow by doing this, that we’re going to stay on top of everything.
The reason it matters is because it’s so much more stressful. Our breathing and our posture are compromised and longterm. This kind of stress contributes to all of the chronic diseases that are on the rise. Today. I’ve always wondered if we tracked the ubiquity of technology with the rise of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and digestive issues, if they would map, because the kind of stress that we’re creating by this behavior become significant over time.
Leslie: [00:08:22] So still as human beings are social animals, our inherent desire is to connect and be connected. So isn’t CPA and the fear of missing out simply a natural consequence of that desire.
Linda Stone: [00:08:32] There’s there’s a belief that if we stay on top of everything, we will be in some way more connected. We’re not going to miss anything. We’re not going to miss an important meeting. We’re not going to miss seeing someone who’s only briefly there. We’re not going to miss an opportunity to, to do something that we want to do.
But, but when I, when I think about the word connect, I think, what does that word mean? You know, I, I want to be constantly connected, so I don’t miss anything. And yet now, now that I’m a little older, when I think about the word connect, I think if I’m not present, I’m missing everything. The word, the word connect for me really means presence. And when we think about continuous partial attention, the word connect is about a complete lack of presence. And it’s about.
Truly for the, for what connection is, it’s about a total loss of connection and it’s, it’s about doing, not being.
Alexa: [00:09:46] I think what you are describing. It’s actually my life. This is what I live every day, you know? And it is it’s, it’s fear of missing out and it’s almost survival. In fact, as we are talking, okay, as I said, this is my life.
I’m getting texts. These, these are important texts that I have to deal with. And I’m, you know, I find that I’m trying to follow this discussion. I’m. Trying to also respond to this in a timely manner. And it is extremely difficult because as you say, our brains process things serially. So we fool ourselves when we think that, Oh, yes, we can do this all and we can pay attention and we can multitask where there simply, or a complexity and a complex way. You had, you had also talked about it and written that all of this It creates this, this amount of stress and tension. You said, if we were able to map, you know, the incidences of you know, disease stress-related disease and diabetes and GI issues, you wonder how this would really map with the technology and our engaging in CPA.
I imagine given a reptilian brain, this is, you know, because we were so involved in his fight or flight, a lot of it is in this reptilian brain. And so I’d have to believe that it is increasing our cortisol level in some way. Is that right?
Linda Stone: [00:11:12] I, I believe that there is research out there where people have measured that, but I, but I haven’t looked into that recently.
Alexa: [00:11:21] I can tell you just from, just from the feeling that, that I have, you know, that and trying to engage in multiple things at once that require cognition, that you can almost feel like the stress level. You know, goes up and then with every alert, every beep there’s another, you know, ratcheting up of that, that stress level.
Linda Stone: [00:11:41] Let’s talk about a Silicon Valley moment. You wake up in the morning, is your Apple watch on, do you have your aura ring on? Are you tracking your sleep? Are all your devices telling you are your devices telling you how you feel or your devices telling you what your heart rate is?
What your blood pressure, you know, what are your devices telling you about who you are when you get up? I mean, how connected are you to, how you feel, where. Where do you draw the line between who am I? Am I who the technology tells me I am? What I wake up or am I how I feel, or do I know how I feel anymore?
Or do I need the technology to tell me? And we get to what I think is really at the heart of all of this, which is where is my sense of agency does my sense of agency rest with me? Does it rest with all of these devices that I’m surrendering to? Oh, you want me to touch you back? Oh, you want me to email you?
Oh, I’ve got a zoom coming up. Oh, I’ve got eight zooms in a row. Where does that leave you? Where does that leave us in terms of who we are and really achieving our potential. So I think all of this gets back to. What is agency, where does it rest? And then it goes back to William James, his definition of attention, which isn’t just, what am I looking at?
It’s what am I choosing not to look at right now? And that’s probably, to me, one of the more important parts of that definition of attention, which is what am I not doing right now in the wildness of, you know, the real intense continuous partial attention that happened as these devices were coming on board.
And we were so excited about all of them. You know, people had pagers and cell phones and they were attending to all of these interruptions all the time to the point where a lot of the cartoons that were coming out had people at, at lunch or dinner, not paying attention to each other, people taking a walk in the woods, not realizing that they were about to go over an embankment and the, the heart of all this is, where do we want to go with this amazing power that we have of our attention? And do we want to give it away or do we want to have some practices in our lives that allow us to make our own decisions about what happens. I know for me, one of the things that I started to do was at the end of the day, I would make a list, both of what I was going to do and what I wasn’t going to do that made a huge difference for me.
Because as soon as I had all these devices, I became an expert at what I called the never ending list. You know, you could put everything on a list. And I just, you know, would cross things out, but they would populate as fast as I would cross them out. And I couldn’t even begin to get my sanity back until I had this list of what I did do and what I didn’t do.
At one point, I, I interviewed all kinds of people on whether they manage their time or manage their attention. And some of the most interesting people I talked to were artists and surgeons who said that in equal parts, they had to manage their time and attention.
A surgeon has only so many seconds to sew something up before something terrible might happen. And so they’re constantly managing and aware of their time, but if their attention isn’t laser focused, they can’t do what they really need to do. Artists were exactly the same. They manage their attention with a great sense of intention and those of us who seem to be the most vulnerable to constant, continuous partial attention, which I sometimes call, continuous, continuous, partial attention are those of us who run our day by managing tasks and not managing intentions.
If we manage intentions, we can manage our attention because we know what we do and don’t want to do. But if we are managing tasks, they end up managing us. They end up dictating to us.
Leslie: [00:16:28] I know that on a day where I’ve got a list of, of things where I was like, I must do this, this, this, this, this, and that.
It was like, if I don’t know why I need to do this, this, this, and that. I can just stare at that list all day long and it’ll stare back at me and it won’t happen. When you describe it that way, I understand better that days where I know there’s a thing that I want to achieve, which has these 15 things that have to get done and know stuff that I know I’m not going to do those days work much more clearly. But I wanted to say it seems to me in what you’re describing, there’s two important steps, at least one agency, as you said earlier, that you have to own your own life and not be run by your devices, but also others expectations. Right? With all of this technology, you know, people can text you. It’s an instant message. And I like to remind people, yes, the message was instant -that doesn’t mean the response will be. But the expectation is there that you’re reachable. And that you, you know, it’s rude. If you don’t respond in a certain amount of time, unlike in the olden days, those of us who remember phones that would ring that you always answer the phone when it rang even before you had call display, but you also thought about who you would phone in and whether you were phoning at dinnertime or not.
Right there, wasn’t the same sense of you know, just anything all the time and instant responses. So I think there’s, there’s sort of two key pieces there, your own agency and managing expectations.
Linda Stone: [00:17:51] So so many years ago, I, I sat next to someone on an airplane who was maybe 15 years younger than me. And he had he had a pretty stressful job at Apple.
I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I asked him how he dealt with the constant deluge of contacts and he had both a voicemail. And an outgoing email that said, if you’re contacting me about X, do Y if you’re contacting me about A do B, if you want to talk to me, I’m available on instant messenger during these hours.
And he had completely described a framework for getting through to him with whatever means was comfortable for you to make contact or whatever you felt needed. And I was really impressed by that. I mean, this is an opportunity for us to figure out how to set boundaries, which most of us aren’t that great at.
There’s like a huge self-help industry about setting boundaries that doesn’t relate to technology. So we just need to bring it on in.
Alexa: [00:19:10] I, I think what Leslie said really resonated with me because it’s not just us and what we do, we are really connected, right. To many other people and the expectations. So part of the fear of missing out is, Oh my gosh.
If I don’t keep up at this level, Others are, going on and, and just sort of running in that hamster wheel. So if I don’t keep up at that level, either a, I will be deluged tomorrow. Kind of like when you go on vacation and then your mailbox explodes when you come back. So it’s not that
it went away. No, it just piled on. So part of it is that you want to keep up. And I think what you’re saying is, look, don’t blame it on the technology. Don’t blame it on, you know, and with the other’s expectation, you really need to set boundaries and, and claim your agency and give them direction as to when and how, so not every ping needs to be returned right away with a response, which is, I think what we’ve been accustomed to, at least certainly I have,
Linda Stone: [00:20:11] well, I’m going to just say you can blame it on whatever you want. It’s just not going to be that helpful. You can blame it on the weather.
You can blame it on the technology. You can blame it on anything you want, but I like to think about. Where the control is where the agency is in a situation, what do I have the power to actually manage and control? That’s where I need to start, because that’s the only way. That’s the only way that I can bring whatever sanity I have back into my life.
Alexa: [00:20:47] Almost like a Buddhist principle, you know being really present. What you were saying, and really making a distinction between what’s coming at you and what’s important on what’s not being present, but let me go back to the technology. Can technology actually help you? I mean, they are these apps, you know, Headspace, meditating apps that force you to either breathe or to meditate and be present.
Would they help?
Linda Stone: [00:21:19] I think different different people respond to different technologies. And for some people, Headspace is fantastic. First of all, people take a minute to schedule Headspace into their day. That’s a huge leap of intention and take a minute to. To breathe and connect with their body. This is a whole nother issue with continuous partial attention and email apnea and screen apnea is that we lose our connection to our body.
How many times have you been working at your computer or a bed on your iPhone? And you don’t feel your feet on the ground anymore, but your head and your mind are somehow melded with your phone. So, or with the content or the communication that’s going on, but you’ve completely lost a sense of your body.
And so you’ve lost your breath and your breath is really what keeps you in your body and what keeps you healthy, functioning, and operating at your full potential. So we start to get more stressed, fight or flight is actually comes from holding your breath and that’s a natural response. You hear a noise, you hold your breath and listen, so that you’re keenly tuned in to whatever might be going on to see if there’s a danger there.
Well, for us, when we connect to technology, we inhale and hold our breath while we work through the technology because our posture is compromised because we’re anticipating something. And so we start to lose that connection to our body. I think about this in terms of how a musician learns an instrument, a beginning musician picks up an instrument and the first inclination is to merge with that violin or to merge with that clarinet.
You sort of throw yourself into it as if this closer connection is going to somehow make you better. And it isn’t until you stay totally self-contained separate from the instrument that you’re really can become a great musician. If you look at the better musicians, You can see their bodies from tip to toe are energized and the instrument is like a dance partner with them.
Same is true in dance. When you’re dancing, you need to be completely partner dancing completely in your body in order to balance and work with, and really have the full experience. We won’t completely get ourselves back and get our attention back until we start to learn how to stay self contained physically in our relationship with technology.
And I think frankly, kids learning musical instruments in school, that’d be great. I think even singing, which I know COVID makes a little more challenging, but even singing is one of those things that requires you to, to breathe and stay embodied. Anything that brings you back to your body. And back to that sense of being self-contained is, is really a plus and very helpful.
Leslie: [00:24:50] It’s interesting. You mentioned COVID-19 and the pandemic, because I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about. And this is not particularly related to the technologies which had followed us home, but families or people that are just generally finding that without all the distractions of all the social the regular social programming that they’re actually, you know, able to connect more with their family.
They’re talking to their kids, whether their kids are there or, you know, distributed across the country. So, so I think hopefully people are learning something about themselves and something about what is a distraction and what’s really important to them and achieving some level of connection as you were describing earlier, real connection and not just, you know, bits on the end of the wire.
Linda Stone: [00:25:34] Absolutely.
Alexa: [00:25:37] So what I get from what you’ve said is that we can blame technology all we want. Right. And yes, this technology is designed to keep us engaged and paying at us and alert us and so forth. But really it is about us claiming our own agency. And staying present and establishing boundaries, not just with the, with the technology itself, because yes, you can shut off alerts, but also with other people.
So we don’t really feed into each other’s expectations of always on always responsive, always alert because ultimately that the impact to us and to our health is one that we can’t recover easily from. That’s right. So are there any sort of, you know, other takeaways or thoughts that you want to leave us with regarding not only continuous partial attention, but also that email apnea or the screen apnea?
Linda Stone: [00:26:35] I think one of the simplest things to do is just make a decision. Do you want to manage your life by managing tasks? Or do you want to manage your life by managing intentions? Do you want to maintain a sense of agency or do you like it when your technology tells you when to stand, when to breathe and how healthy you are and, you know, whatever do you the, the opportunity that, that we have is to make decisions about how we want our lives to work. And of course there are going to be moments and days and maybe weeks where there’s a deadline or there’s urgency around something. That’s, that’s been the way it’s been forever. But if we don’t make a decision to put periods in our sentences or have moments where there are breaks, there will be no breaks because periods happen when you put them in a sentence and new paragraph start when you make a decision to start them and breaks happen, you know, rests happen in music when you put a rest in. So we are the composers of, of how this works. And of course there are going to be waves of intensity, but I, I think if we think more about intention along with our thinking about tasks and we think more about agency and where are the control rests and blame that we can reclaim our power.
Leslie: [00:28:22] I’m thinking about my life as if it was a musical composition, not that I’m a musical composer by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I hear a lot of cacaphony in this piece.
Alexa: [00:28:32] I love that imagery of the period after a sentence I, you know, this is interesting because sometimes a lot of our podcasts we end up on, you know, it’s bad governance or it’s about, you know, Technology itself is so forth. This is really interesting. And that’s, I think is the first one that, that took the consequences of a technology and turned it into almost like a self-help, you know, to take a pause and to
Leslie: [00:28:56] awareness like self-awareness.
Alexa: [00:28:57] Yeah, it was wonderful having you Linda, thank you so much.
Leslie: [00:29:02] Yes.
Linda Stone: [00:29:02] Thank you. You guys are terrific. Thank you for what you’re doing it’s great.