From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 27, 2006*: Now. Right now!

For much of the past month I've been trying to write a Boidem column that examines the pitfalls of immediacy on the web. Over and over I've tried to organize my thoughts. Ordinarily, this isn't particularly difficult. After more than ten years of columns, I've become rather adept at converting thoughts into bits. There's certainly no lack of material that I can examine, not only from the perspective of the disadvantages of immediacy, but of its advantages as well. Reviewing this material, attempting to determine whether the new tools that have become so popular of late actually present us with a new reality of productivity, or simply inundate us with too much input, shouldn't be particularly difficult. But each time I sit myself down to write, I discover that I allow myself to be distracted, more than in the past, by the availability of vast quantities of information, both significant and trivial. I tend to pride myself on being a rather accomplished multi-tasker, so it really shouldn't be that difficult for me to absorb information from the flow, while at the same time writing almost coherent sentences. But if the experience of this past month is an example, it's becoming more and more difficult.

The first, and probably the most desirable, excuse for this difficulty is being swamped with work. Even projects that are labors of love have to take a back seat to the need to make a living, and few will complain if you excuse your lack of writing by having to attend to more pressing tasks. But although that's an accurate excuse, it's also a perennial one, and as such an excuse that doesn't really explain anything. I can't think of anything out of the ordinary that occurred during this particular month that caused me to be busier than usual with work related tasks. Instead, it seems to be that the problem lies in what has become an imbalance of focus. I'm well aware that there are only 24 hours in a day, and that if I want to focus on a certain number of topics, I'm going to have to forego focusing on some others. My RSS reader is, compared to those of a number of others at whom I've had the opportunity to glance, rather limited. But that's only in comparison. I try to follow close to sixty feeds, and among these are about thirty five active blogs that focus on topics that concern me both personally and professionally. That's an awful lot of reading, and it rather readily explains why other items that I've tended to read have been neglected of late.

But there's nothing new in the "so much to be done, so little time to do it" approach to our world. Being busy, even if that "busy-ness" entails mostly clicking from link to link such that we never get around to the tasks at hand, doesn't really merit a column. I've got a drawer full of "hey, look what I stumbled upon" items waiting for an "I don't seem to have anything to write about" moment, but (at least when I started writing this column) this isn't one of those moments. If anything is new here, it's perhaps the tipping of a balance, the creation of a new focus. Throughout the digital age we've been face to face with a burning question, a question that's taken on numerous forms. Sometimes we ask whether the computer is really a time-saving device. At other times we wonder whether, with the aid of the computer, we're really capable of balancing all the activities that demand our attention. The more digitally proficient among us tend to pride ourselves on being adept multitaskers, able to deal with numerous tasks at one and the same time. Of late, however, many of us seem to be realizing that such a claim is based more on false pride than on actual evidence. We've got to admit that, in the midst of so many stimuli, it's becoming more and more difficult to actually accomplish anything.

Actually, the multi part is easy. It's the tasking that's difficult. Sure, there are teenagers who can watch television, listen to a disc, flip through a magazine, play a computer game, and even do homework, all at the same time. All of these are activities, but that doesn't necessarily make them tasks. Activities are things we do, while tasks are things that have to be done. The intended end result of a task is accomplishing something, while activities are little more than a way of filling our time. We can perhaps "do" lots of things at one and the same time, but if we define "doing" as something beyond simply having things take place while we're around them, if we, for instance, have an intended, identifiable and measurable outcome, chances are good that we're going to be focusing on only one item at a time.

There's not really much that's new here. For perhaps a decade Linda Stone has been examining what she calls continuous partial attention. Her definition is quite simple:

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment.
In other words, as opposed to multitasking, where we attempt to do as many things as possible at one and the same time, when we're in a state of continuous partial attention, the emphasis isn't on accomplishing anything, but instead, on being available for whatever may be happening, or be about to happen. Perhaps it's sort of like being at a cocktail party where we resist getting into an interesting conversation with someone because we're hoping that someone else, more interesting to us, is about to show up. We nod our heads "yes" and "no", we go through the motions of actually listening, but most of our attention is being focused elsewhere, is being saved for a better opportunity.

Kathy Sierra, on the Creating Passionate Users blog examines this issue, and its potential extremities, in a post she calls The Asymptotic Twitter Curve. Sierra reminds us that we're already drowning in online-ness:
Email is out of control. IM'ing sucks up half the day. And how can we not read our RSS feeds, post to our blogs, and check our stats? If my Cingular cell phone sends me a MySpace alert and I'm not there to get it, do I exist?
But she then introduces us to Twitter, a site that seems to offer us the ultimate in immediacy. As though all of the previous weren't enough to suck up our attention, to keep us in the here and now and prevent us from getting anything done, Twitter invites us to report to the world what we're doing at this very moment. And perhaps this is the key to true happiness and contentment: if we can keep ourselves busy by reporting what we're doing at any given moment, we won't have to really do anything.

So why was it that this particular column didn't get posted on its intended date? Was it because I was too busy and wasn't able to call up the necessary concentration that would permit me to convert a collection of random thoughts into an organized essay? Or was it because I was investing too much energy keeping an eye on too many tangential items that should have been blinkered while I was focusing only on the task at hand? Had I been reporting on what I was doing at any given moment to Twitter, I'd probably have been writing something along the lines of:
once again allowing my fascination with Twitter to keep me from doing other, more important, things
or perhaps more honestly
trying to convince myself that the "here and now" can and should take precedence over productive labor
But perhaps it's even simpler than that. Though our task oriented culture tends to view "wasting time" as a cardinal sin, sometimes it can't hurt to admit that there's nothing all that wrong with allowing our attention to wander, or that an occasional blurring, rather than a sharpening, of our focus can, in the long run, even help us get things done. In short, one of the best ways of occupying our time may well be through wasting it. Web surfing, simply clicking from page to page, perhaps IMing without any particular purpose, or reading blog posts just because they're there and offer us a glimpse into someone else's banal yet full (and different) life, all invite us to waste some time. Perhaps in their immediacy they distract us from getting actual "work" done, but it's precisely these tangents that ultimately contribute to our productivity.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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