Monthly Archives: September 2008

Thinking about thinking and attention

I’ve been reflecting on Richard Watson’s blog postings on the effects of shorter attention spans. There is some good analysis and insights in the current issue of Richard’s What’s Next trend report. I recommend it to others. But this posting is about attention.

In the Thinking about Thinking piece in Issue 20, Richard explores why partial attention is happening and what the consequences are.  I feel that I can add to Richard’s views and offer some alternative perspectives.

Richard quite rightly points to the Internet as encouraging us to consume in “short, snack-sized bites”. We flip around from one web page to another, one video to another. Most rarely go past the first page of web search results. But our attention is fragmented in other ways too: we are consuming more media and using new ways to connect with others. Not all at the same time but with partial attention.  The web plays a big role in shifting attention, but the issues go further than just the Internet. Wasn’t there some guy in Japan who had his thumbs altered in surgery so he was better able to text?

Richard suggests that shortening attention spans results in less ability to concentrate, contemplate or reflect. I don’t think so. What are we giving up in spending more time on other media? We are spending more of our lives online…but less time watching TV or reading a newspaper. The Social Web is about participation – we have the opportunity to express our views, share our knowledge or artistic creativity and connect with others. We have more opportunity to learn. I’ve spent much more time online this year doing things like blogging, commenting on others blogs or posting stuff on social networking sites and web discussion forums. Over the last few weeks I seem to be spending more time viewing videos online of people presenting or in conversation with others. My Google Reader feeds provide a very useful way to tailor the information flood to my needs. Participating in Twitter, Friendfeed and other social networks has opened up new sources of information and networking opportunities.

Much of my interface with online communities is episodic although I must admit, it can be distracting. I too do not want to miss something. My holiday time does seem to blur into keeping connected with what is going on. All true. See Richard’s other posting on attention for background. But these give rise to social consequences, not the ability to think. Technology is changing our territorial and psychological boundaries – but for me that is broadening my mind, just in the way that travel broadens your mind. 

The benefits of paying attention to stuff online are for me quite substantive and compelling. I have access to more knowledgeable and strategic thinkers located around the world than I would have once ever imagined. That interaction has prompted me to do a lot of thinking. I’ve had more to contemplate and reflect on and contemplate and reflect I have!

The discipline of writing a blog posting or commenting in a concise and (hopefully) constructive way requires some careful thinking. Sure, as Richard observes, firing off something too quickly is a problem. But you learn from your mistakes.

I’ll close by looking at the practice of executive summaries – an established method for briefing senior executives for I don’t know how many years. Many executives do not read papers that go past three pages. Does that mean senior executives are getting stupid? Now pick yourself off the floor and think again. In my view, the best executives are those that see the big picture, the emerging patterns and opportunities that those dwelling on more specific things do not.  

What’s more, I’ll go as far as saying that specialisation and mechanical repetition that characterised the industrial age resulted in people being far less able to contemplate and reflect on the rich diversity of life and think for themselves. Instead we had broadcasters and publishers doing the thinking for them.  That’s all changing.

Could I do my job without twitter?

Chris Brogan got me started on this question by stating in his blog “Let’s not fool anyone. You can do your job without using Twitter”… or blogging or networking or using news feeds: the social media tool box in other words. Chris’s posting attracted 50 or so comments – good ones too, a neat reference on social media alone.

I’ll start by saying, I could not do my job without social media tools – I track trends in communications and media. I’m an information sink. To know social media tools is to use them. If you don’t use them you don’t really know much about them.

Beyond the tracking thing, I have found that I can link to and interact with some very interesting, clever, insightful and creative people – connections that would not otherwise have been available. The interaction can be very personable. I can tailor my feeds to those issues of particular interest to me. I’m spending less time reading newspapers and watching TV. I’ve stopping reading printed newsletters and magazines. I read less books.

But aside from that, what’s my view? Here goes.

Chris is right to observe that millions of people don’t use social media tools and do fine without them. So what grabs their attention? What the difference in their lives? Does the media you use shape and influence your life? You bet. I like what Chris Saad states in his LinkedIn profile “[attention] determines what we see, what we hear and what we act on. Attention motivates us.”

So no social media means print media, broadcast media, diaries, talking over the phone and so on I guess. We all do face-to-face so let’s say that one is a neutral. Now the key point of difference between traditional media and social media is participation. We create, share, reuse, remix and comment on media. It’s not passive. It’s not one to many, it’s many-to-many. Mainstream media (is that term still operative?) has turned to social media as a source of breaking news and to retain their customers. Social media is inherently human – we are hard-wired to make connections. The social web amplifies that.

Using social media is fun too. Having a laugh with others online, enjoying a live sports event, empathising with someone or learning from them, being co-creative. The benefits just go on and on. And I’m with Kyle Lacy in saying that we love sharing and we love getting noticed for sharing. Nice posting on Smaller Indiana btw Kyle.

Social media can be a tad too diverting at times – I need to be wary of getting the offline and online in balance. Face-to-face is best. Like just about everyone else, my deepest and most important relationships are offline.

Social media is not for everyone – particularly those for whom old habits die hard. But that to me indicates digital divides are deepening into more significant social, cultural, political and economic divides.

Above everything else though, I go back to attention, participation and influence. Social media opens up so much more to see, hear and to act on by participating. Mainstream media lies in social media’s shadow.

I would say that people do get by wihout using social media – and whether that’s fine for them is questionable. In the short-term maybe but not in the long-term.

Social Actor Networks

I’ve noticed that an article this month on ‘digital intimacy‘ by Clive Thompson in The New York Times has had a positive reaction in the blogosphere. I’ve been prompted to share my impressions too, in part through having observed others ‘living their lives online’, in part through my own online experiences, and in part as a graduate in sociology.

Clive asked why people found up-to-the minute updates about other people on Facebook “intriguing and addictive”. Apparently sociologists call this phenomenon ambient awareness – it’s like being able to pick up on someones mood through the corner of your eye when you are in close proximity. Microblogging has taken this to a another level where a user can sense the rhythm of a friend’s life in a way not experienced before. Individual postings may be insignificant on their own, but over time would coalesce into a reasonably sophisticated understanding of anther’s life experiences.

That observation took me back to Douglas Rushkoff’s discussion of fractals and discontinuity. Through being able to see or sense inter-relatedness, what appear to be senselessly chaotic irregularities can turn out to have an underlying order to them By focusing on discontinuity, we can come to understand it.

Now this goes to the core of futures thinking: by focusing on uncertainty, we have a better chance of understanding the forces driving change.

I’ve noted before than social networking can meet basic social needs. Clive’s article brings this out very well. As one user told Clive, using Facebook and Twitter is a way of feeling “less alone”. Another said “things like Twitter have actually given me a much bigger social circle”.

Deeper relationships are still predicated on ‘face time’. But there is value from “weak ties” forged through social media.  According to Clive, “sociologists have found that weak ties greatly expand your ability to solve problems”. Avid users of Facebook and Twitter can come to know much more about themselves.

So another take I have on this is that digital intimacy generates social capital. Understanding online social culture is not just a matter of focusing on social actors, but social actor networks.

As Clive noted, digital intimacy can be very hard to understand until you have experienced life streaming yourself. You need to participate – engage in the stream. Think and act creatively, avoid looking for linear relationships.

The flip side is, what is the social and economic cost of not participating? The divides between those always connected with others online and those that are not are becoming more socially and economically complex.

Mind over Matter

On 26 August I had the great good fortune to attend the Mind over Matter – How Technology Matters seminar hosted by

Professor Martin Westell’s topic was how technology is impacting on attention, motivation, multi-tasking, learning and work. This posting is to share my notes on multi-tasking, media consumption, evidence-based decision-making, the pace of change looking forward and ways to deal with that. The speech marks are quotes from Prof. Westell.

One surprise for me was to learn that young people are not so good at multi-tasking (e.g. consuming multiple media at the same time). It was surprising in that, a not unusual comment at media conferences  is for one of the speakers to talk about their son or daughter’s ability to watch TV, txt friends and update their MySpace/Bebo or Facebook profile all at the same time. As it turns out, that all seems to be something of a myth. Adults in are not so adept at multi-tasking either,but they are better at it than young people. It seems that what people do is to shift their attention from one task to another. So a young person would send an SMS, then check out YouTube, then turn to whatever is on TV – sequentially, not simultaneously. Media consumption is episodic. Check out the research referred to by Prof. Westell here.
The relationship between multi-tasking and media consumption appears at first to be at odds with recent data about people consuming more media at the same time. The point to note however, as Ross Dawson as observed, the implications are that “Most media will be consumed with partial attention. Advertising impact will decrease”.
The point about ‘partial attention’ is consistent with the ‘scarcity of attention’ phenomenon as observed by Brian Solis.
Adults are better at multi-tasking because they have more highly developed ‘executive functions’ (such as inhibiting impulses and paying attention). Younger people do not have the same attention-holding ability as adults – that probably explains why kids appear to be consuming multiple media at the same time. They just flip quickly from one to another.
On the Impact of ICT
It is important for the ‘system’ (i.e educational institutions, service providers, regulators) to understand – at a reasonably deep, rather than surface level – what ICT experiences students have. Where there is a lack of understanding “the system retreats” (eg. where schools ban access to YouTube and social networking sites).
Young people are better at discerning authentic & synthetic messages (eg. after MySpace introduced advertising, some young people left the service).
Socialisation (not information) is now the primary use of the Internet. “It’s not the technology that changes the way you think, it’s about you and what you do with it”.
Young people experience violence online in a similar way to real violence (ie. their brain reactions are similar).  A young person experiencing a lot of violence online becomes more violent in the real world. Their online experience changes their worldview and interaction with others in the real-world. This can have positive effects as well, depending on the virtual experience. Online video game players apparently make better laproscopic surgeons. Learning how to take-in massive amounts of information during video games develops a high capacity for attention.
ICT is process-focused rather than product-focused. Demonstratively high processing skills is a key indicator of future success – more so than numeracy skills. The best time to learn processing skills is between 7 – 15 years of age. Happily, learning changes brain connectivity through-out life (ie. it is possible to learn no matter what age you are).
Highly structured learning environments that focus on content inhibits skills-building to an extent (skills such as planning, strategising and prioritisation). More effective learning environments incorporate multi-sensory activity, emotional content and interpersonal interaction. ICT collaborative tools are good for building self-regulatory or ‘executive’ functions. Giving more control to young people over their education would help to develop their self-regulatory skills.
We can only use evidence to inform decision-making (ie. evidence is not the sole basis on which to make decisions). Each decision-maker has their own beliefs, experiences and values that come into play.
Prof Westell referred to Kurzweil’s Singularity is Near to suggest that, at the current rate of progress, the next 25 years will be the equivalent of progress made over the last 100 years. In such an environment – with so much change, so much diversity – a distinctive ‘Generation Z’ (i.e the generation after Gen Y) is not likely to happen. In an environment of rapid change, ‘future-proofing skills’ such as creativity and innovation will be of strategic advantage.
Decision-making will involve ambiguity – making decisions with unknown probabilities or unknown outcomes. This means that decision-making would need to be open to possibilities. This is different to making decisions through risk-assessments (evaluating varying levels of probability).
The problem is that people prefer knowns to unknowns, going so far as to sacrifice potential rewards for the sake of surety. Our natural response to ambiguity inhibits innovation and leadership. Apparently ‘neuro-economics’ goes into this kind of thing (ie. ways of getting around this problem).
Professor Westell referred us to a presentation by Ken Robinson on creativity  – one of the messages being that creativity is just as important as literacy skills. Creativity means being open to possibilities, doing new things. According to Sir Ken, “if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come-up with anything original”.
On top of the need for ‘the system’ to understand young people’s use of ICT, other challenges are to cope with complexity (fast pace of change), ambiguity and to embrace creativity.