More On Continuous Partial Attention

Stephen DeAngelis

February 19, 2007

In a follow-up post to the first of my two blogs on Harvard Business Review’s 2007 Breakthrough Ideas [HBR 2007 Breakthrough Ideas, Part 1] ZenPundit Mark Safranski tied Linda Stone’s idea of Continuous Partial Attention to work being done by Dave Davidson on visualization [Information Velocity: Knowledge Opportunities or White Noise?]. Safranski writes:

“It occurred to me from Stone’s use of the term ‘scanning’ that ‘continuous partial attention’ is a behavior that probably has a strong evolutionary base as it would offer obvious survival advantages to early humans who manifested that kind of alert and reactive perception to minor changes in the immediate environment. A behavior that can be relaxed when we are in locales where our need for safety and security are relatively assured norms. Scanning for information in Continuous Partial attention increases the velocity of information flow to the brain and we would be constantly assessing the value of the given information in terms of ‘spending’ our attention by increasing our focused concentration and going ‘deeper.’ Judiciously practiced, continuous partial attention would yield certain efficiencies in terms of time saved and increased probability for generating bursts of insight. These would be moments where real learning could potentially take place, opportunities to acquire or, add to, useful knowledge.”

When Mark talks about “survival advantages” of being good at continuous partial attention, I conjure up images from Animal Planet’s most successful show Meerkat Manor. Meerkat survival depends on avoiding or confronting threats as a combined group which requires individual attention, connectivity, and combined action.  As a result, Meerkats constantly scan the sky, sniff the air, listen for nearby noises, and visually sweep the surrounding area from as high a perch as they can achieve — all the while being aware where other members of their group are foraging and where the nearest bolt hole is located. Some group members are better at this continuous partial attention than others and they become extremely valuable to the group as a whole. Dave Davidson’s believes we can enhance our CPA ability (even if we’re not naturally gifted at it) through innovative visualization [Who Is Linda Stone and why should we listen to her?] Dave writes:

“It has been my passion since I began posting on this blog 10 months ago to seek ways to provide solutions to this dilemma, solutions which I believe rest on the ideal developed years ago by the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. His axiom ‘Less is more’ is my guiding principle. As I find useful tools for compressing and synthesizing the chaos of content on the Internet I will share them with you.

In the past I have referred to challenges like continuous partial attention as part of a complexity gap. It is a challenge that confronts many large organizations, not just individuals. It is an even larger challenge when information from one organization must be shared with another. The best example of this, perhaps, is how information is provided by the intelligence community to fighting forces. How much information should be pushed to fighters (e.g., an anti-aircraft missile has just been fired at your aircraft!) and how much information should be pulled up by the fighters themselves (e.g., is the movement of fishing dhows into this part of the ocean typical behavior this time of year?). In other words, how do you deal with the challenge of providing what the fighter thinks he needs to know as opposed to what do others think he should know? Davidson is correct that proper visualization can go a long ways towards solving this challenge. When the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner, it was engaged in a hot exchange with small boats and thought that the airliner was a military aircraft coming to join the fray. A good visual display would have prevented the tragedy. Had, for example, a computer display showing known commercial flight routes with airplane icons showing whether they were climbing or descending been available, the officer who made the decision to fire could have ascertained the information he had been provided was in error. What the Vincennes had was dark screens filled with green numbers that were constantly changing that were misinterpreted in a tense situation of information overload.

Not all learners, however, are visual learners. When Enterra Solutions addressed this problem, we developed Transparent Intelligent Interfaces that provide information to decision makers in the form they prefer. It continually updates the data the decision maker wants and provides alerts for information he requires but only on an exceptional basis. The name of Davidson’s blog [Thoughts Illustrated] is a good example of how words can be used as effectively as pictures to conjure up clear mental images of what is being discussed. A blending of visualization, numerical data, and words (analogies, metaphors, etc.) ultimately provides the best learning environment and helps reduce (but will never eliminate) the continuous partial attention problem.