Society & culture

Continuous partial attention syndrome

Interruption science is the study of why people get distracted and how best to interrupt people. For example, in the late 1980s NASA needed to find ways to deliver important importation to busy astronauts. This might seem trivial but if an important communication is not distracting enough it may get ignored, while anything too distracting could ruin a multi-million dollar experiment. In other words, the timing and style of delivery of communications is vitally important. Text-based communications, NASA found, were routinely ignored while visually-based communications seem to get through. So what’s the relevance of this to people with their feet firmly planted on earth?The simple answer is that many of us suffer from too much information thanks to faster computers and connectedness. We are constantly subjected to a torrent of interruptions ranging from e-mail to mobile phone calls. Indeed, a recent survey found that employees spend on average eleven minutes on a task before being distracted by something else. Furthermore, every time an employee was interrupted it took almost half an hour for them to return to the original task and 40% wandered off somewhere else. In other words, information is no longer power. Getting and keeping someone’s attention is. We are so busy watching everything and multi-tasking that we are unable to focus on or finish anything except after hours or at home. Given that computers and the Internet are largely to blame for this, it’s not surprising that computer and software companies are taking the issue very seriously. Part of the problem is that our memory tends to be visual and computers only allow the display of limited amounts of information on a screen. Some people solve this problem by sticking low-fi post-it notes around the sides of their screen. Another way might be to say no – unsubscribe and unplug parts of your life.If this isn’t for you then technology may once again come to the rescue by changing the way that information is delivered. For example, if a computer could understand when you were busy (via a camera, microphone or keypad monitor) it could rank e-mails in order of importance and then deliver them at the most appropriate moments. Information could also become more glanceable in the same way that aircraft instruments are laid out.
In the more distant future we may even figure out a way of getting rid of computer screens altogether and embedding glanceable information in everyday objects.
Ref: New York Times (US) 16 October 2005, ‘Meet the life hackers’, C. Thompson
Search words: Constant partial attention, Too Much Information, TMI, life hacking,
Links; Citibank auditory display software See also
(a big thank you to Ross Dawson at who spotted this).

More time than we think

Things are speeding up right? You’ve got no time to yourself and it feels like you’re always working. Wrong. A couple of economists have studied how people in the US spend their time and the results are shocking. People have considerably more free time than they did forty years ago. This verdict is at odds with various studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau but their studies tend to focus on workplace trends. The findings – by Mark Aguira (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) and Erink Hurst (University of Chicago) – looked at total time spent and found that the total amount of time spent ‘working’ has actually fallen consistently since 1965.There are problems of definition of course. If you are multi-tasking – listening to music while cleaning the house for example – is this work or relaxation? Nevertheless, the technological revolution (for example, 24/7 services, home delivery, Internet banking) has delivered a more relaxed society where the average person has four to eight hours more leisure time each week than they did forty years ago. So why do we still feel so stressed out? The reason, apparently, is that we’ve got too much money! The growth in real incomes has made our time more expensive so lying in the sun for a day is much more expensive that it used to be. The second reason is that we do too much. Connectedness means that we are ‘always on’ which also leads to a blurring of boundaries between work and home. Add a pinch of job insecurity due to outsourcing and you can see why we’re so rattled.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 4 February 2006, ‘The land of leisure’
Search words: speeding-up, time use, time, busy, leisure, work

Not there physically or emotionally

Men working long hours at the office is now the fastest growing reason for women seeking a divorce. Working late at the office used to be a euphemism for going out for a drink but these days men really are still at the office and women are getting fed up with it. A survey by Paul de Graaf at Radbound University in the Netherlands has found that the number of women citing long hours as the primary reason for seeking a divorce has increased by 300% while the percentage citing violence or infidelity has declined by a 50% and 30% respectively. Even when men are at home, chances are the work has come home too and emotionally it is becoming very difficult for some men (and women) to switch off thanks to mobile phones and laptops that are never off. Part of the explanation for this is that we are becoming more individualistic. If a partner doesn’t fit in with certain life plans, the other partner is more willing to move on – and it is increasingly easy to do so. However, business culture is also to blame. It is quite conceivable that corporations will be forced to pay for some or all of the costs associated with work-related divorce, illness and child development problems in the future.
Ref; The Sunday Times (UK) 12 March 2005, 'All work and no play leads to divorce', Roger Dobson and Ed Habershon 
Search words: divorce, work
Links: Dash cash (saving money to run away)

Don’t be evil

Google is younger than most Hollywood marriages but it has already firmly established itself in the cultural lexicon. Every day 600 million searches are made around the world and 50% of these searches happen through Google. The company has a market capitalisation of US $120 billion and part of its mission statement is ‘don’t be evil’. So what is there not to like? Part of the problem (to some) is that Google makes things too easy and too comfortable. You can find anything on Google with remarkably little effort, which is most welcome, given how busy many of us claim to be. But 80% of people wearing Google goggles never proceed past the first page of results and have never used the advanced search feature. Most people do not in fact know (or care) how the page rankings work and do not (according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project) know the difference between search results and sponsored links. Google works because it gives users an acceptable result with minimum effort and no cost. But what should be a first point of call has become a last stop and this is affecting how we learn and what we know. As an example, 71% of US teenagers in 2001 used the Internet as their primary source of information for homework. This has given rise to a massive increase in plagiarism – again because it’s so easy to cut and paste information. In other words, Google can give you the appearance of learning without actually knowing anything. Quantity or popularity is not the same as quality and there is no context for the information. Where is it from? How reliable is it? Another issue is that search engines like Google can’t tell you about all the things that you don’t know you don’t know about (we are becoming so stupid that soon we won’t know how stupid we are).
Ref: The Monthly (Aus) February 2006, ‘Information idol’, G. Haigh
Search words: Google, search, information, knowledge, education

The ethics of inconvenience

Contemporary society is built on the foundations of speed and accessibility. It is an ‘always on everywhere’ society where whatever you want you can get – as long as you can pay for it. This ‘user-centricity’ is considered good. The speeding up of the digital highway is a priority because faster communication makes us more productive. Only it doesn’t. The Solow paradox is named after an economist called Robert Solow who discovered that the computer age was everywhere – except in the productivity statistics. This is now less discernible than it was a decade ago but it’s still true. The reason is that most of the efficiency gains have benefited the consumers and not producers. The customer is in charge and is demanding cheaper goods and faster services. One major benefit of the digital society is connectivity. Location is increasingly irrelevant. We can now find lost friends and discover new communities of kindred spirits. We can also buy products from anywhere in the world - but at what cost? The quest for immediate satisfaction has made people more dissatisfied. We have also lost silence, isolation, reflection, public spaces and serendipity – all of which are immensely valuable but hard to put a price on. The digitalisation of social relations and the oversupply of communication have also led to what Professor William Mitchell (MIT)  calls an ‘economy of presence’. In other words, as the supply of communications increases we will start to value those that are rarest. For example, e-mail is now so abundant that it’s almost worthless. A handwritten letter, on the other hand, gains our immediate attention, not least because someone has invested time and effort. So, if Professor Mitchell is right, what are the implications? One consequence is an increase in demand for face-to-face interaction. There will still be shops with real people inside in the future and people will pay extra to speak to a real human being or to have ‘face time’ with their bank manager. Back in the 1960s urban planning was all about cars and speed. Nobody could have imagined that in the early part of the 21st century, urban planners would be trying to slow cars down or remove them from cities altogether. If the future is going to work we need to respect the things that have worked previously and develop an ethic of inconvenience where short-term individual pain leads to long-term collective gain.
Ref: Prospect (UK) February 2006, ‘Digital Exuberance’, W. Davies
Search words: speeding-up, digitalisation, digital, communication, social relations