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Does Paying Attention Cost Too Much?

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| Red Hat and the $100 laptop ?

January 30, 2006

Does Paying Attention Cost Too Much?

Rob Hof

Over at Bokardo, folks are trying to figure out how to deal with information overload, especially RSS feed overload, a problem a lot of us have been running into. It's interesting that few folks are suggesting a tech fix--maybe because it seems unlikely software can keep up with the fast-changing nature of information flows. Instead, a number of people are just tuning out, for awhile or for good.

I don't know yet if that's a good or a bad thing. Still seems like there's a big opportunity in helping people sort through the skyrocketing amount of conversation out there, something that does what our brains do when we talk to dinner partners in a crowded restaurant and manage to tune out what doesn't matter right now (even if it might be interesting). I don't think it just comes down to better automated filters or even social filters, though they may help. It needs to be something more active. Or maybe that's just the magazine editor in me talking.

02:33 PM

RSS, Web 2.0, attention

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When you say a tech fix for information overload, I get this vision from "A Clockwork Orange" where Malcolm has his eyelids held open.

Internet or not, isn't it just given no one can track it all? Shouldn't we also be worried about blogs in languages we don't know? Before the internet, did we all stalk Borders and read all the international papers they stocked?

There are still a lot of beers I haven't tried, and that concerns me more than RSS feeds I'm missing.

And even more off topic...I'm I supposed to read all of the BW blogs, or is it expected I read maybe one, and that is why you guys do inbred posts?

I was kinda puzzled as to why Stephen Baker made a post in rebuttal to Heather's post on Blogspotting on the same day. And why Heather responded to it in the comments on her post and the two posts don't even track back to each other.

Kinda seemed Stephen could have just replied to Heather's post as a comment, which shows support for her idea.

The question it seems, is what are group blog rules? If the two had separate blogs, it wouldn't have seemed odd to me. Are BW blogs one blog by different authors, or a bunch of different author's blogs that happen to be on the same page?

Wondering how you guys look at it.

Posted by: dg at January 31, 2006 10:02 AM

DG--got a point there, especially about the beer. It's good to remember what's important and focus on those things, not worry all the time about what we're missing.

As for the rules on group blogs--and they are group blogs, not individual ones stuck together--I guess we don't really have any rules. Maybe the way we're doing it is a little confusing and we need to rethink it. I'll ping Steve and Heather about that. (Not sure, though, if they'll respond here or on their blog!)

Posted by: Rob Hof at January 31, 2006 10:39 AM

This is something that we are trying to deal with by creating a gadget that allows you to set rules about what you care about and then manage the way information is delievered - usually via a heads-up-display rather than having to bury your head in a feed reader.

Here is a post I made about it

You can find out about our gadget at - i'd love to hear what you think!

Posted by: Chris - Touchstone Gadget at February 1, 2006 01:08 AM


I think your just touching the tip of the iceberg with this "Attention Management" issue. What is attention? One definition: “It is what you focus and put your energy towards.” Dave Sifry, Founder and CEO of Technorati, says it is “time directed to a purpose by a person.”

I believe that attention is just about the most important commodity people have today, and if I am not mistaken, most Internet vendors think so also.

I see "Attention" as a combination of our time (of which we have limited amounts) and our interest (which are often variable and dynamic). Additionally, there is not just one type of attention. There is the face-to-face, stare-you-in-the-eye, totally focused attention, and there is, as Linda Stone, formerly of Microsoft Research’s Virtual World Group, calls it, “continuous partial attention”.

Stone believes that since the mid 1990s, continuous partial attention has become a way of life; our attention bandwidth has been stretched to its upper limits (you too have pointed out Rob) and we just keep the top level item in focus and are always scanning the periphery for opportunity. Why do we do this? Well, after some introspection, it seems we want to stay connected and don’t want to miss anything, especially an opportunity!

Ms. Stone, I and also you Rob seem to all agree that we are at the limits of our bandwidth or ability to process incoming information. One estimate says that the “sum of all human information” will double every 11 seconds by the end of this century; things are only going to get worse…much worse!

In my vision of the future, nanotechnologies move into the mainstream, there will be smart sensors in almost everything, since they can be embedded at a molecular level. Not only will they be able to receive, they will also be able to send messages. Our appliances (washing machines, refrigerators, etc.) will not only get connected to the wireless network in our house, but also to the Internet, and they, too, are getting smarter and will start to send us messages. In a short time, not only people and content, but devices will be competing for our attention!

Over the last year I have discussed this issue and my vision of the future with other colleagues. One colleague has suggested that

one’s social networks are one’s filters for information overload. If Person A likes it, and I like and trust Person A, then I should like it.

I agree with this type of filtering to a point. But social networks only deal with part of the problem. I believe that you will not be able to filter enough through these networks to stop the overwhelming of your mental bandwidth for both information and attention.

Like you Rob, I belive that this problem, created by technology, also has some of its solution based in technology. The problem also needs to be attacked from the other direction, that is, to augment a person's ability to "attend" to content and events. In the future, there may be a variety of technology solutions that might help, although the scheduling tools that Microsoft and IBM/Lotus are building are not necessarily it - you will need to multiply your bandwidth and attention by multiplying yourself.

In my view of this solution, we all can use some type of virtual agent that knows where you are, what you are doing, and what collaboration programs or devices you have; it also has a subset of your personality, and some level of authority to make decisions on your behalf. This agent is assigned to deal with specific types of tasks demanding your attention. For example, this virtual agent or avatar can deal with lower-level requests for attention and decisions around what to pick up at the grocery store on the way home from work. It knows your likes and dislikes, what is in the refrigerator and what is not, and you have empowered it to make those shopping decisions. You get a reminder from your Avatar and have the groceries delivered to your house at 5:00 pm (it knows your schedule and that you are due to have dinner with your family by 7:00 pm). This leaves you free to deal with critical requests for your attention from your family, your boss, negotiating with a client, dealing with a crisis, etc. Since many fewer items fall into these "critical" categories, your bandwidth and attention are not on overwhelm, and yet all of these other demands on your attention are also being satisfied.

This is only my vision of the future and an idea of my solution to the attention management problem. I am sure there are many others.

Posted by: David Coleman at February 4, 2006 11:40 AM

I liked your comment. I too belong to the same profile and this was of great help.

Posted by: Adam Butler at February 8, 2006 02:26 PM

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