No One 'Goes' Continuous Partial Attention (CPA)

By Terry Calhoun

It’s truly amazing how archaic air flight is for information age professionals. We still don’t have batteries strong enough to last through a flight. Although I carry a special power supply kit, I have yet to fly on an airplane which has a public supply to tap into. Partly because of that, and partly because they haven’t decided yet how much we’ll pay to be online during flight, today’s long flights are interruption-free vacuums. For the particular one I am on right now – Detroit to San Francisco, change planes for Honolulu – I brought a bunch of work to read and five novels.

The front pages to the second novel, Tom Dorsey’s The Big Bamboo, which I just started, contain a simple quote from Ronald Reagan on an otherwise blank white page: “No one g'es Hollywood – they were that way before they came here. Hollywood just exposed it.” That’s the perfect riposte to July 5’s New York Times column by Thomas L. Friedman, “The Age of Interruption.”

The first novel I read on this flight was Mike Resnick’s Starship Mutiny. (I do find it hard to read “deep” stuff while flying.) Every time I paused in my reading of Starship Mutiny, my mind went back to Friedman’s column, which I read in the airport while we waited to board.

Friedman is the keynote speaker at The Campus of the Future: A Meeting of the Minds conference, which I am flying to attend. I’m likely not to be in a position to actually spend some face time with Friedman, but if I were, I would really like to speak with him about “The Age of Interruption.”

The column in question begins by sharing his perceptions of the complexity and violence of the Peruvian rain forest, noting that in the rain forest, species that behave like Palestinians and Israelis find themselves extinct. No argument there. It’s something like an evolutionary principle that we apparently hate and fight those we are most like. Sometimes even way beyond what is evolutionarily reasonable.

Then Friedman notes that he was without the Internet for four days. He found it “cleansing” to spend “four days totally disconnected” and called it the “best antidote” to the disease of our age, “continuous partial attention.” We agree on the “cleansing” aspect, but go our separate paths on the assumption (his) that this is in fact a “disease of our age.”

My first thought was: geez, those insects, monkeys, and birds struggling in that rain forest certainly live lives with “continuous partial attention” (hereinafter CPA). (The phrase itself reminds me of another NYT article in today’s paper – about nasty second-party bill collectors and how their continuous partial attention to alleged debtors can ruin people’s lives.) When you are under constant threat of predation, it’s remarkable how easy it is for something to get your at least partial attention.

Friedman then writes:

What struck me about our forest guide, Gilbert…he carried no devices and did not suffer from continuous partial attention. Just the opposite. He heard every chirp, whistle, howl, or crackle in the rain forest and would stop us in our tracks and immediately identify [the animal.]”

He was totally disconnected from the Web, but totally in touch with the incredible web of life around him. I wonder if there’s a lesson there?

Well, yes, there is. The lesson is that humans are always in a mode of continuous partial attention, and always have been.

Friedman’s guide was in a total state of continuous partial attention. He’s walking through the rain forest and every time he hears a sound he treats it like an incoming e-mail message and then accesses his wetware version of Google and explains to his client (Friedman) what he heard or saw.

Anthropologists and religious leaders have different explanations for why humans are the way we are. Some have called humans “the animal that is naturally crazy,” and some indicate that we live in sin because our ancestors ate of the tree of knowledge. Both statements acknowledge, I think, that humans have evolved to be in a state of continuous partial attention. It’s part of who we are.

It’s pretty much a myth and a symptom of multiple perceptions that leads people to think that humans, anywhere, or anytime, ever really lead decent lives of focused contemplation without interruptions. Well, some have. For example, people in the lower levels of medieval dungeons. And hermits on mountaintops. What is it that they climbed up the mountain to get away from, after all, besides interruptions? (It’s similarly a myth, I think, that humans every really have spent generations in relative peace, comfort, and lack of change.)

Remember the quote from The Big Bamboo lead-in pages? “No one g'es Hollywood – they were that way before they came here. Hollywood just exposed it.” Reagan wasn’t as dumb as his policies, or as he seemed, you know.

It’s the same thing with CPA. No one g'es “continuous partial attention.” We were all that way before we got here. Without a lot of help and a lot of resources, we have never been able to find a peaceful and uninterrupted four days in the Peruvian rain forest. We’re evolved to be that way and, just like Hollywood d'es it for those folks who live those very weird lives in Beverly Hills, the Internet just exposes it for the rest of us.

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