if you're bored, you're not paying attention

The attention economy is exhausting.

I’ve been moblogging ETech like mad for the past two days, but you might not know it unless you stop by Wired News’ Monkey Bites blog, where I am a guest blogger. You might not know it even then, since the posts are appearing under the regular blogger’s name, Michael Calore. Regular readers of that blog are probably wondering what the hell is going on, since the flow of posts just quintupled. Hah! Let them wonder.

ETech is a remarkable show in several ways. It’s a tremendous collection of really smart geeks, for one thing. It’s also incredibly dense with information. Keynotes start early in the morning and proceed, bam bam bam, until the early afternoon–when in-depth tutorials start. Then in the evening you can schmooze, check out the two dozen or so vendor booths, or go join a “birds of a feather” discussion group. It all amounts to an incredible overload of information, which is ironic given the topic of this year’s show is the incredible overload of information.

Annalee Newitz, a columnist who I’ve grown to like more and more over the past year, has a timely piece on the subject. She came across some cognitive science research showing that people making decisions in noisy environments are actually more confident of their decisions than those in quiet, focused environments–even though their choices are not empirically better.

Metroactive Features | Techsploits (thanks to 43Folders for the pointer)

That ties in nicely with a talk Linda Stone gave yesterday morning, where she talked about the phenomenon of “continuous partial attention” — constantly scanning your BlackBerry for new messages while talking with someone face to face, for instance, or watching headlines while you scan your inbox. People are getting tired of maintaining continuous partial attention, she claimed, and are desperate for new ways of organizing their information flows so they can stay connected without having to divide their attention all the time. (UPDATE 3/14/06: here’s a transcript of Linda Stone’s talk.)

That said, I find that conferences are great places to think, and ETech is a shining example. Going to a new location, surrounding yourself with new people, and having new ideas poured into your head for 10 hours a day is very stimulating to creativity, even if you aren’t always paying attention to the speaker or taking exacting notes. The trick is transferring all your great conference ideas back home and finding a way to plug them in to your regular life.

I’ll continue posting to Monkey Bites today and tomorrow. Stay tuned.

[tags]etech, etech06, attention economy[/tags]


  1. You Mon Tsang

    Good to run into you at ETech. ETech is really unlike any other conference I have attended: it is very raw and very exciting.

    Bruce Sterling’s speech alone forced me to tap into brain reserves that have been inactive since college.

  2. Ole' Dad

    The cognitive science article that your friend mentions is very interesting! It’s also very technical so only “cog sci geeks” are likely to be able to evaluate it. (Why, yes, thanks, I’ll be happy to!)

    It is indeed a fine study, very well done, but be careful about “overgeneralizing” the results. It has long been known that attention manifests “pop out” effects, where some stimuli literally pop out from surrounding clutter. This is the opposite of the effect found in the new study; sometimes clutter HELPS see a novel item!

    Is clutter always bad? Nope; it depends on the nature of the stimulus, the kind of clutter, and the goals of the observer. Just like one’s confidence that they’ve made the right call. “Attention Consumers” (love the term) just aren’t going to have it all THAT easy! (Gotta’ go — incoming email!)

  3. Dervala

    Another reason I’m bummed to have missed ETech–would’ve been fun to meet you.

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