Sunday, October 16, 2005

Information is no longer a scarce resource--attention is. David Rose, a Cambridge, Mass.-based expert on computer interfaces, likes to point out that 20 years ago, an office worker had only two types of communication technology: a phone, which required an instant answer, and postal mail, which took days. "Now we have dozens of possibilities between those poles," Rose says. How fast are you supposed to reply to an e-mail message? Or an instant message? Computer-based interruptions fall into a sort of Heisenbergian uncertainty trap: it is difficult to know whether an e-mail message is worth interrupting your work for unless you open and read it--at which point you have, of course, interrupted yourself. Our software tools were essentially designed to compete with one another for our attention, like needy toddlers.

The upshot is something that Linda Stone, a software executive who has worked for both Apple and Microsoft, calls "continuous partial attention": we are so busy keeping tabs on everything that we never focus on anything. This can actually be a positive feeling, inasmuch as the constant pinging makes us feel needed and desired. The reason many interruptions seem impossible to ignore is that they are about relationships--someone, or something, is calling out to us. It is why we have such complex emotions about the chaos of the modern office, feeling alternately drained by its demands and exhilarated when we successfully surf the flood.

-- From Clive Thompson's story in today's NY Times Magazine on "life hackers"--behavioural scientists who study human multi-tasking & the way high-tech devices affect our everyday lives. Two very interesting points: when juggling multiple tasks on a computer, people seem to feel calmer & more in control when they have a display large enough to allow them to see many windows simultaneously--for example, a word processor window right in front of them, their email window open to one side, so they can see new messages at a glance, & a web browser to the other, so they can take information off a website. (What I wouldn't do for a separate display just for email!) Also: "by a sizable margin, life hackers are devotees not of Microsoft but of Apple ... a company that has often seemed to intuit the need for software that reduces the complexity of the desktop." Of course.

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