Multitasking and Continuous Partial Attention: An Interview with Linda Stone (Part Two)

Some have argued that new media have diminished our attention span, but you are arguing for more nuanced shifts in the ways we pay attention and process information. Do you see these shifts as a product of the technology or of the ways we have learned to inter-relate with those technologies?

Our most resilient selves are able to tap the attention strategy that best matches any given activity or situation. As we create and adopt new technologies, we do a dance with them — we are figuring out what they offer and the trade offs (how they optimize us and how we optimize the technologies). The shifts are a result of this dance. Over time, as we internalize the costs and benefits of our inter-relationship with technologies (the “what”), and we make choices as to the “how.”

When we talk about information overload, it’s as if we believe the information is committing the crime. When Nicholas Carr talks about “the web shattering focus and rewiring our brains,” we turn the finger of blame toward the worldwide Web. Carr even asks, “What kind of brain is the Web giving us?” Excuse me, the web is giving us a brain? Can we really be so certain about cause and effect?

If we shift our focus to the how, we can find new options. This is a call to action, not a call to a war of technology vs. humans. In our relationship with technology, we are powerful. The HOW is up to us.

For more on these ideas, check out these posts.

There has been a good deal of debate about the value of multitasking. Is it a logical adaptation to the intensified flow of information and demands we face in the current media environment?

There are so many degrees of multi-tasking. There’s simple multi-tasking and complex multi-tasking. Most people lump it all together, but there are very different impacts physiologically and mentally. What I call continuous partial attention is complex multi-tasking. I wanted to more clearly differentiate. In any case, this is _not_ black and white. Sometimes it’s good to multi-task, sometimes not. Attention strategies need to match intentions and situations.

What are the educational implications of your research on attention? Many educators are opposed to bringing new media tools into they classes because they see them as a potential distraction for their students. Is this a legitimate concern or should they be helping students develop skills at managing their attention which may allow them to more productively engage with such technologies?

Long, long answer possible here. The short story is that, as a former teacher, I think there’s room for all kinds of experiences. There are times when NO technology is the best match and times when a thoughtful integration of technology is best.

This may sound a little out there, but I’ve come to believe that it’s time for students to learn breathing techniques that help regulate the autonomic nervous system. Autonomically regulated, we have the best command of our attention, of using the strategy we choose that best matches the activity and situation.

honestly, I do believe, the single most important thing educators can do is to teach breathing techniques that regulate the autonomic nervous system and help up regulate parasympathetic response. This is at the heart of attention, social and emotional intelligence, and contributes to cognition. Further, educators can consider how reflection time might be integrated into the school day. Between media, technology and the 24/7 lifestyle, this precious processing and integration time doesn’t exist. Art, music, leisure time – these contribute to our humanity, and often are cut in a productivity obsessed society. A post productivity society will value them again. It is not an accident at the TED Conference that art, music, dance and wordless videos are as important a part of the program as the talks. This variety contributes to the “music” of the human body and human learning…. Rests and notes.

Time and environments for self-directed play – also essential. We have replaced self-directed play with homework and guided learning. Both of the latter have value. The former is significant. Self-directed play is where our emergent questions find expression, our passions find us, failure is iteration – there isn’t an emotional charge, it’s part of a compelling process of discovery.

I am eternally grateful to my mother for having an art/art supply table set up in the family room. When we weren’t outside playing, we were often creating books, objects, works of art — we were given freedom to express. Questions were indulged with trips to the library, opportunities to build, make or create experiments. We were welcomed in the kitchen, one of the greatest labs, ever, for me. When I wanted to start a cookie baking company, selling cookies door to door at age 8, I was encouraged to do so and had to pay cost of goods before I could take profits.

Today, in the name of “safety”/danger, so much is declared dangerous — so much of what feeds curiosity and wonder. Granted, some of it may be dangerous, but so much of it can be explored — just ask Geever Tulley.

In the name of “teacher-proofing,” everything from schedules (2 minutes of health and safety, 30 minutes science, 70 minutes reading, etc) to content (which book, which page), to measures (least common denominator student learning objectives, uni-dimensional tests that teachers are compelled to teach toward), is prescribed.

This alienates imaginative, passionate teachers and, honestly, it’s time to assess the overall (in my opinion) damages caused by this hyper productivity approach to learning. I’m a fan of diane ravitch and highly recommend her latest book on the rise and fall of American schools. She is a wise woman.

It’s not the fault of the unions and a war with the unions is not going to improve education. We need re-assess both the what and the how of education and find a way to enlist all parties in re-creation vs destruction.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention school lunches. This program was started after world war II, to support an under-nourished populous. Today, it is one of the cornerstones contributing to childhood obesity and poor health, and potentially, the learning challenges that can stem from poor nutrition.

This program must be a role model for healthy nutrition. It is one of the central ways to infuse information and experience around healthy food choices.

Social critics, such as Walter Benjamin, have long raised questions about distraction, seeing it as a phenomenon of the modern age. Is there a reason to think that contemporary forms of distraction are profoundly different from those encountered in cities at the beginning of the 20th century? If so, in what ways?

Different, but at heart, the same impact. Distraction is like a broken glass. Embracing a spectrum of attention strategies and having the flexibility and skill to match intention and activities to attention strategy is the prize. Understanding and being able to manage breath and emotion contributes this (and it’s commutative — managing attention helps manage breath as much as managing breath helps manage attention).

You noted recently that there are new tools emerging which seek to block some of the distractions we encounter on line. What is motivating these tools and are they a good response to the situations you are observing?

I’m in favor of approaches that tap the wisdom of the body or that enhance the wisdom of the body, the cooperation/integration of mindbody.

I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies over parental ones. Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.

Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds.

In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule. “Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Follow Twitter while working on PowerPoint, why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.” Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.

With technologies like Freedom, we re-assign the role of tyrant to the technology. The technology dictates to the mind. The mind dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.

Our opportunity is to create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious Computing. It’s post-productivity, post-communication era computing. Personal technologies that enhance our lives.

Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing.

How do we usher in an era of Conscious Computing? What tools, technologies, and techniques will it take for personal technologies to become prosthetics of our full human potential?

For more on conscious computing, follow this link.

Widely recognized as a visionary thinker and thought leader, Linda Stone is a writer, speaker and consultant focused on trends and their strategic and consumer implications. Articles on her work have appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, The Economist, Boston Globe, Harvard Business Review, and hundreds of blogs.

Previously, she spent close to twenty years as an executive in high technology. In 1986, she was persuaded to join Apple Computer to help “change the world.” In her 7 years at Apple, she had the opportunity to do pioneering work in multimedia hardware, software and publishing. In her last year at Apple, Stone worked for Chairman and CEO John Sculley on special projects. In 1993, Stone joined Microsoft Research under Nathan Myhrvold and Rick Rashid. She co-founded and directed the Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group, researching online social life and virtual communities. During this time, she also taught as adjunct faculty in NYU’s prestigious Interactive Telecommunications Program. In 2000, CEO Steve Ballmer tapped Stone to take on a VP role, reporting to him, to help improve industry relationships and contribute to a constructive evolution of the corporate culture. She retired from Microsoft in 2002. She is an advisor for the Pew Internet and American Life Project ( and is on the Advisory Board of the RIT Lab for Social Computing.


  1. At my age I shouldn’t judge an interview by its introductory superlatives in a Phase I, but await the more salient currency at mid-stream…of Phase II. Linda Stone delivers such, finally, having wrestled CPA and/or her C-CPA, ‘continuum of continuous partial attention’ concepts to the grounding of retirement…

    “Over time, as we internalize the costs and benefits of our inter-relationship with technologies (the “what”), we make choices as to the ‘how’.”

    I would rather we make choices as to the “why”, less the how. More the ‘why’ (benefits) and ‘when’ of the application. The ‘how’ is nothing more than acquiescence, then acquisition of the usage skill-set toward the ‘digital device’. More important is the ‘why’ we want to leverage this or that particular ‘widget’ into yet another prosthetic to our humanism (short-comings), or not?

    Finally, (‘long-story’ – mid-graphs) proffered by Stone deep within your interview: “This may sound a little out there, but I’ve come to believe that it’s time for students to learn breathing techniques that help regulate the autonomic nervous system.” Yes, of course! NOT! THIS particular C-CPA continuum, if you will, is NOT “out there.” It’s way overdue…maybe because of our continuously being partially attentive.

    Harvard University neuroscientist Sat Bir Khalsa has dedicated his life to the meditative benefits of Kundalini Yoga. Western medicine, often seen as exorbitantly expensive, not as often ‘best-practice’ as it could be globally, but now, currently at least within the debate. It most certainly is and mandates ‘evidence-based’ roots.

    That said enter Dr. Khalsa, practicing at Harvard and on the staff at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital for the key reason of orchestrating ‘peer-reviewed studies’ so to begin to authenticate and thus foster the learned “breathing techniques that help regulate the autonomic nervous system” referred to by Stone. Make ‘Yoga’ and its practice ‘evidence-based’ now. It must be, or a sibling, if it has graduated itself up the autonomic nervous system as Stone has indicated. At Dr. Khala’s behest, such modality, and modularity of programming is now present within the Boston public elementary and middle school system. Dr. Khalsa’s life work in Yoga and its permutation would be the routine in schools, hospitals, and the military. Fortunately he has not been continuous in his partial attention. In fact, as a society I suspect the meditative sensory sedative of Dr. Khalsa’s Kundalini Yoga provides a welcome disconnect from the continuum of continuous partial attention. i.e. whew, relax, veg-out a wee-bit kids; ‘don’t worry, be happy; be happy, don’t worry’ as the song mellows. Breath well for your autonomic nervous system!

    Now comes the technically advanced MSN Kinect/XBox. Perhaps Stone’s Microsoft/Ballmer stint of two years (2000-2002) led to the, ‘to be seen’ weight control exercise connect of well, this NOW arriving ‘Kinect’ sensory, motion monitoring/meme technology bolted onto XBox. If not, it should have! We are an obese society! Diabetes is a derivative and psychically disillusioning to human productivity. Impairment is most rampant in school age children. A sizeable group of Army Generals out there NOW are positioning the howitzers for a much needed behavior modification ‘attitude adjustment’.

    Thusly, and NOW, perhaps we have an end to one neuro-pathway that was partially inattentive: “I would be remiss if I failed to mention school lunches. This program was started after world war II, to support an under-nourished populous. Today, it is one of the cornerstones contributing to childhood obesity and poor health, and potentially, the learning challenges that can stem from poor nutrition.”

    It behooves us all to disrupt (as new technologies will) spending so many years in a state of continuous partial attention, evaluating the ‘how’ of technologies’ use. Rather we must quickly anticipate (not be inattentive toward) the ‘what, why, and where’ of it, thusly, ‘when’ it is to be beneficially applied societally.

    “This program must be a role model for healthy nutrition. It is one of the central ways to infuse information and experience around healthy food choices.” Yes, of course!’Out, out damn fat’, if we be fully attentive!

    Granted the embedded energy empowering technologies within Microsoft’s Kinect are new and freshly painted upon its assemblage, but let’s not spend another 20 years in a state of CPA scratching our heads over its application. Psst, ‘attentively’ include the Kinect in this new equation of applied technical attention for cures (ATAC). We shall see, it will be quite the prosthetic. If we pay attention.

  2. “Different, but at heart, the same impact. Distraction is like a broken glass.”

    I have to say this is about the best description of distraction I’ve seen. Espeically with the cyber age today, we get so distracted from our lives and ‘real’ world that in due time the prospects of concentration and realism fade away. With the advent of facebook and twitter, lives have become one big distraction.

    Bonnie Smith

    COO/Director FXP

  3. Thank you for a rich and thoughtful post. I only wish more teachers and parents would read your wise words. I am especially grateful for your comments about self-directed play and the importance of time for reflection. You are so right about current trends in today’s world that leave precious little time for growing minds to experience moments that aren’t completely pre-programmed so kids can be engaged in inventive play and reflective thought. Bravo!

    BTW, have you read Rich Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods?

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