Linda Stone visits Nature

Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft (but not at the same time ;), and now of “continuous partial attention” fame, came to visit Nature’s office in London last week and delivered a great talk about how we can use technology to feel more fulfilled and less overwhelmed. It contained some similar themes to her excellent ETech talk in March, but also some new stuff. Here are my rough notes to give a feel for what Linda spoke about.

Technology sets me free, but technology also enslaves me. Aikido thought says that the opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth. The sweet spot of opportunity is where human desire meets technology. Presenting a framework for thinking how we use our attention.

Multitasking and continuous partial attention (CPA) are different. Multitasking is automatic: we get as many things done at the same time (e.g., listen and drive) to be more productive. But CPA is different. We want to scan for opportunity in order not to miss anything. This creates an artificial sense of constant crisis, which causes stress and becomes addictive. We have stretched our attention bandwidth to the limits because attention bandwidth does *not* grow like computing bandwidth. We have refined CPA to a high art in the last 20 years. This is neither good nor bad, but we can have too much of it.

A company’s core values can remain constant, but their expression needs to evolve. The period 1965-1985 was all about ourselves and maximising opportunities to improve our productivity. Self-expression, productivity and creativity were valued above all else. But we took these to extremes that Christopher Lash described as leaving us narcissistic, lonely and yearning for connection. Now we have swung the other way: we are all about connecting and we trust collective intelligence more than individual intelligence. Entrepreneurialism evolved into collective models like eBay. Starbucks provides customers with always-on ‘fuel’ and wireless connectivity. To succeed means making the most of every connection and opportunity. For example, people boast of having 3,000 friends on Friendster and there are parties at which everyone talks on their cell phones; CNN packs the screen with a clutter of information.

Now people are starting to resist. A 23-year-old friend said recently that she quit every online social networking service in order to make time to have dinner with people. A CEO gave up his Blackberry to *increase* the barrier to contacting him and give himself more time to reflect. This made him harder to access but *more* accessible because he’s able to pay attention. Some companies require employees to ‘disarm’ their ‘weapons of mass communication’ at the meeting-room door.

CPA leads to being overwhelmed and unfulfilled. ‘Always on’ does not respect our natural cycles and the fact that we need downtime to be productive and creative.

New rules of engagement for email can help: ‘Silent consent’ means that if you don’t reply by the deadline you agree. If you’re on the cc line then you should *not* respond. Delete email after 14 days. Embed email courtesy guidelines at the end of email messages (along with the legalese). Powerful tools like email need guidelines for use.

We are on the edge of a shift. We need to use human will and technology to provide protection from overload, more filtering and meaningful connections. Now we need to discern opportunity instead of scanning for it. The collective will appears to be moving from asking, “What do we have to gain?” to asking, “What do we have to lose?”. The iPod is not just a music player but a shield from the rest of the world. We want to trust Google, politicians (oops! 😉 and product vendors.

Employees want managers to help them discern opportunity instead of pushing them to pursue everything that comes their way. The iPod won by taking away everything extraneous. For how this can go wrong, see the spoof ‘Microsoft version’ of the iPod box.

Knowledge workers scan for opportunity. *Wisdom* workers *discern* opportunity. The new mantra is ‘does this improve my quality of life’?

[A Q&A session followed during which I didn’t make notes.]


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