Undivided Attention?

by Mark Finnern

Before air conditioning, as the sun set in the summer, you would sit on your
porch and wait for the house to cool. Everybody would be outside and you would
automatically have more interactions with your neighbors than today. With the
advent of cheap air conditioning and television that habit changed.

A picture named etcon3.jpgA
similar change is happening as a result of ubiquitous internet access. Breakfast
at conferences is often a place for surprise encounters with fellow participants.
Casual talk about previous and upcoming sessions is common (except of course
for those who, not yet in the mood for conversation, hide behind a newspaper).

At the O'Reilly Emerging
Technology Conference
a few weeks ago wireless internet access was available
everywhere. That completely changed the breakfast scenery. Circles of laptops
formed on every table and people were united by the need for power from extension
cords. Across the table were colleagues wolfing down bagels and coffee while
weeding through their email and newsreader. For most people the electronic space
was a bigger attention grabber than a casual encounter at the breakfast table.

This is, of course, only the beginning. Through some strange coincidence I
was sitting at the lunch table with Jeff Bezos. (This sounds, unintentionally,
like name dropping; sorry.) Here is my point: someone to his right pitched an
idea to him and at least twice during the conversation he checked his Blackberry
and quickly answered some emails. This was probably to ensure his new space
adventure Blue
is on track :-)

I admit that I love to call people and chat while folding my freshly washed
clothes. What concerns me is that this semi-attention affects more and more
of our daily interactions. We get so many emails that we barely have time to
scan them. If you want to announce something under the radar screen, put it
in the third paragraph of your email and it will sail through unnoticed. Later
you can write: "But I told you that I am going to be on vacation that week.
Here is the email to prove it."

When was the last time that someone really zoomed into you? Was listening not
only to what you where saying, but also was tuned into your current mood and
all the things that remained unspoken? These people develop a deeper undestanding,
live a richer life. Troy Gardner, a friend of mine, writes in his email signature:
How you live your seconds, is how you live your days, is how you live your
How true.

If you want to get really good at recoginizing peoples emotions check out
Paul Ekman's new book: Emotions Revealed:
Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life.
For over 40 years he has done extensive crossculturual studies of facial
expressions. Malcolm Gladwell of The
Tipping Point
fame wrote an execelent article for the
New Yorker
about him and his work.

Attention is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to another person.

Give it fully and freely.

P.S. And remind me of my words if I don't :-)


2003-06-05 15:18:18
Second Seconds.
It's an interesting reversal as you mentioned I hadn't thought of before: From working on the field or hot house then going out to sit on the porch swing and talk in midday sunlight, to now going into a cool cave...er an airconditioned room with artificial lighting, gathering around a table and in conferences without the insight to provide enough power strips.

It's strikes me as it's even possible to go back further, where those that huddle around the few power outlets, laptops and brew much as early man huddled around the provider of fire, with as much gratitude for those graciously sharing/bringing extension cords and power strips as those who had a good day with the spear and bow and are passing it around. Sharing the light of flourscent backlighting, and the warmth of your music, your documents, your photos, and occasionally a portal to the webtribe in local mental proximity for comfort rather than the facing soley the stranger open flame, open source :), and open stories of the days hunt in local physical proximity. If this were camping those together would have no choice but to interact or sit in silence, but now with other things to distract us..er more important things to work on it seems more often that our immediate context is increasingly put on lower priority threads and tivo like timeshifting(those that record/type the experience, and shift in and out of what's going on).

Especially for entreprenuers and creators, if one is truly aware of all the infinite corridors of things that there is to be done, and the scope of time it can viable be done it, seconds of our attention and time grow exponentially expensive, and how we evaluate the currencies that others choose to spend/exchange our seconds also come under critical attention. I think the majority of our current a culture (at least in america) that isn't quite ready for it.

When I'm in the mode, the awareness of spending of seconds has been an interesting mental challenge for me as looking at that detail it often requires looking at priorities more critically, continually asking in Buckminster Fuller style "What is the most important thing I should be thinking of right now?", sorting ("is A really more important than B?"), and being accutely aware of novelty versus repetition ("I've already hear this ").

This generally requires a great deal more of impulse control that I think humans emotive system capable of, considering we aren't yet machines and have amazing ability to go into tangential motion for the sake of living in the present, and getting lost in the process/flow state of doing. The novelty versus comfort thing also come up quite often for me (trying something new/learning versus what makes me feel good and doesn't get me anywhere).

I imagine before texting/email, and in places where those are just deemed light priority threads if they even exist, social situation like those presented by Bezos listening to a presentation and answering email can be considered plain arrogant, cold, rude. I know in my own working with other engineers the typical communciation style is much like the code they try to produce, 'right' and the minimal cost path to get there. So the process of keeping the dissonance down, keeping the required level of detail one needs and what the other wants/needs to provide and in synch often ends up in interruptions, redirections, and cut off sentences as one goes on to long. This is necessary when time is precious be totally unacceptible else where. For example, going home for the holidays where this isn't the case it takes getting use to as family time isn't necessarily productive "let's work on something together", and typically go through the same cycles, arguments, games, which is comforting yet net productive in a convetional sense, that sorting algorithm "coming all the way out here, going hmm spend time having the same political debate (which is comfortable, fun and familiar) that ends up in the same position or go up to my room and work on my music?"

Yet in cultures which understand the time like this it doesn't seem to be an issue, rude as it can be the geeks who cut me off, and those I cut off move right past it. Texting and talking according to Rheingold in SmartMobs in other cultures it's perfectly acceptable as sometimes they are just another outlet for saying the same things (perhaps to friends saying something that can't be said live as they would offend the party being remarked about), and other times like Bezos, the gist of what's being said is all that's needed while the other wants to go to nth detail on the subject matter.

Also in the process of maximize productivity agressively attention spanning and multitasking can go ary. Driving to someplace in traffic new and looking for the next set of directions. It's theoretically possible to time slice, but that latency between tasks and missing the red brake lights in front of you can be significantly more costly than just missing the turnoff. Being with people is the same, not looking and missing some critical facial expression while their words say something else. While busy typing we lose this (or have to have them repeat themselves), now costing twice as much of our time and theirs.