Continuous Partial Attention

by francine Hardaway on January 27, 2008

Bill Clinton talked on the phone while receiving his famous blow job from Monica Lewinsky, which was the beginning of the nightmare of infinite connectivity.

This fact, originally from the Starr Report released during Clinton’s impeachment, was recalled to me as I was laying in bed, petting a dog, watching “Meet the Press,” and reading an article from the new Atlantic website. The article, which originally appeared in November (when they still charged for content), is written by a novelist. Which means it is very, very well-written. And very convincing.

The article uses a novelist’s eye for detail to explain how multi-tasking nearly cost him his life. did cost him a girlfriend, and at the very least, caused him to miss a cheap ticket to San Francisco. It’s larded with quotations like this one:

To do two things at once is to do neither.
—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.

and it makes the point that we are killing ourselves through continuous partial attention, which he calls multi-tasking.

Apparently, neuroscience doesn’t support the fact that its possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. Or at least, it says 2000 tries are necessary before two things done at the same time are both done well.

But texting teenagers are certainly past those 2000 tries, and Blackberrying corporate types are as well. So continuous partial attention is here to stay.

I suspect we will have to get used to blog posts with typos and near misses at intersections. I post with typos all the time, and I used to be an English professor. If anyone would have told me I would ever hit “publish” without proofreading, because I was watching TV while writing, I would have fiercely denied it. The same way I would have denied that I would ever talk on a telephone in a ladies’ room. Or read ANYTHING while driving. But we live in a new world, and I don’t think novelists or neuroscience will be able to drag us back to the time when people looked into each others’ eyes when they spoke, rather than at their Blackberries.

Sure enough, Hillary was out of South Carolina on her way to Tennessee by the time Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary. She probably learned about continuous partial attention from her husband.

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