Linda Stone, coiner of the marvelous phrase continuous partial attention, has lately been exploring another modern pathology she calls email apnea, which means failure to breathe while checking email. In retrospect, we shouldn’t be surprised. Look:

  • The new 25-payline special edition of Wheel of Wealth will have you holding your breath in excitement…

  • Play Online Slot Machine Game. Coin in – spin – hold your breath……Watch those symbols…..Will it or won’t it?

  • After the first two hits you’re holding your breath for the third reel…

We don’t talk about slot-machine apnea but it’s the same syndrome, produced by the same cause: an intermittent, or variable-interval, schedule of reinforcement. Any activity that exhibits this pattern will be powerfully addictive. A dog begging for scraps of food at the table, rewarded only once in a thousand times, will always beg. Likewise a human begging for scraps of attention.

The link between variable-interval reinforcement and email addiction is well known. Less studied is how this plays out in other modes of electronic discourse. The architecture of those modes introduces another key variable: attention payoff. In a group-structured system, like email or Facebook, the payoff is bounded by group size. It’s true that email messages can escape and go viral, but when that happens the attention payoff is never the kind you want.

But in open pub/sub systems, like blogs or Twitter, the payoff is unlimited. Any item that you post could attract worldwide attention, boost your reputation, land you a job, or make a key personal or professional connection. However there’s no guarantee that you’ll get any reinforcement at all. So some fall by the wayside, others become addicted.

“Technology is here to stay,” Linda says. “Can our relationship to it change?”

It must, it can, and it will. But we’ll need to develop some intuitions about global scale and connectedness for which evolution did not prepare us. And then we’ll need to translate them back down to the human scale. Evolution has taught us how to be social. Technology amplifies our ability to give and receive attention, but it doesn’t change the rules of the game. There’s a time to listen, a time to talk, a time to breathe. We’ll remember, and we’ll figure it out.