Listen, talk, breathe

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.

4 Comments

  1. There are two interaction loops whose latency impact the participant’s physiology.

    The first loop concerns navigation cost relative to the amount of returned information. Compare reading the same email on a blackberry, netbook or multi-monitor desktop. High navigation cost, slow networks and small screens create interactive inefficiency and unscheduled moments of social and sensory randomness (or breathing).

    The second interaction loop concerns the perceived publishing cost of a response to a message, as a boundary on response time and response size. A short wait on a cheap response that never arrives, can be more emotionally expensive than a long wait for an expensive response that does eventually arrive.

    The freedom of unified communication media is not low latency pervasive presence, but an entire spectrum of social latency for evolving values and social protocols. As you say, we’ll figure it out.

  2. A short wait on a cheap response that never arrives, can be more emotionally expensive than a long wait for an expensive response that does eventually arrive.

    By cheap vs expensive responses, you mean responses that require a small or large investment of time and effort?

    That’s a fascinating measure.

    1. By cheap vs expensive responses, you mean responses that require a small or large investment of time and effort?

      Yes, a combination of device entry cost and attention opportunity cost. Geolocation can be a partial proxy.

      Low device entry cost:
      * full size keyboard
      * voicemail

      High device entry cost:
      * touch screen keyboard
      * tiny dedicated keyboard
      * exorbitant device or data fee (e.g. rental, prepaid, international)
      * device use not permitted in location

      Low attention opportunity cost:
      * no competing activity
      * competing activity can be interrupted without adverse effect (physical, social, psychological)

      Medium attention opportunity cost:
      * watching TV
      * waiting in line/queue
      * listening in a meeting
      * passenger (train, auto, plane) where neighbor or scenery is not interesting

      High attention opportunity cost:
      * driving
      * walking in a busy public space
      * speaking in a meeting
      * attending social engagement
      * sleeping (time zone difference unknown to sender)
      * meditating

  3. Jon,

    I whole heartily agree with your comment on video versus audio podcasts. I am in the car for 2hrs each day and audio podcasts are a great way for me to learn. But, it seems more and more people are only offering video. The other thing that bugs me is m4a vs. mp3. I much prefer mp3 format. Also, I think people who only post podcasts on Itunes are missing another audience. I dislike Itunes greatly and avoid at all costs. I always like the ability to download the mp3 from the author’s site.

    By the way, thanks for some great podcasts.

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