Choose one of the following options: Technology has improved my life; it sets me free. Or, technology has harmed my quality of life; it enslaves me. Chances are you may want to reply, “All of the above.”

Linda Stone would agree. An early and respected industry thinker focused on the social implications of technology, Stone sparked a passionate discussion among attendees at the recent Supernova conference, co-hosted by Wharton in San Francisco. Now a consultant, Stone was formerly an executive at Microsoft, where she co-founded and directed the Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group, and, with her team, researched online social life and virtual communities.

In 1997 Stone coined the phrase “continuous partial attention,” referring to the behavior many have adapted to cope with the increasing amount of information and ever-growing number of tasks generated by increasing technology use. She defined it as “keeping one major item in focus while scanning our surroundings to see if anything else important needs our attention. It is motivated by a desire not to miss opportunities. We want to ensure our place as a live node on the network.” 

In Search of Attention

Stone’s work focuses on how socio-cultural influences push us to use our attention in certain ways. She described social behavior occurring in roughly 20-year cycles, marked by a tension between the collective and the individual, with swings in behavior as we take beliefs to extremes and then seek opposites.

From 1945 to 1965, the organization or institution was the center of gravity for most people. “We believed that by serving a given institution — family, community, company — we’d live happy and well-ordered lives. As those things failed us, we embraced what we had suppressed,” said Stone. As a consequence, the next two decades, 1965 to 1985, were focused on self and self expression to the extreme. 

From 1985 until the present, we have been reacting against our earlier self-centeredness by turning to networks, because according to Stone, “we believe that to be busy and to be connected is to be most alive. Now we’re over-stimulated, over-wound, unfulfilled.” As a result, some companies are attempting to change employee behaviour by, for example, instituting email-free Fridays to wean email junkies away from their computers and see if employees will be more creative when they discuss things face-to-face.

The cycle we are now entering is one in which we try to find ways to regain control of our attention and to satisfy our longing for a quality of life and work that allows us to connect in more direct, meaningful ways, said Stone. “The next aphrodisiac is committed, full-attention focus. Experiencing this engaged attention is to feel alive.  Trusted filters, human or technical, and trusted protectors will help us remove distractions and manage boundaries, filtering signal from noise, enabling meaningful connections; these will be the tools and technologies that allow us to take our power back.”

Blogs and Bogs

In recent years, the Internet itself has been evolving as weblogs or blogs become more and more of a trusted social medium, said Caterina Fake, part of the management team at Flikr, an online photo management and sharing company recently purchased by Yahoo! Blogging is a tool for users as they try to deal with a changing technology landscape where “the problem is no longer how to get more information from one person to another but how to constrain that flood of information, how to deliver and receive more meaningful and contextual information for you and your business.”

Glenn Reid, CEO of FiveAcross, an innovator in communication software for networks, agreed. “As the blizzard of information has increased, we have all been trying to find a filter, editorial oversight as it were. That happens in blogs. If I like the blogger’s point of view, I follow his or her recommendations. Connecting people to one another can be a solution.”

Constraining information is “precisely the role of technology that tracks our activities, aggregates it and uses the information to direct our attention,” said David Sifry, CEO of Technorati, a search engine that tracks the world of weblogs. “It’s a technological tap on the shoulder that saves us time. Time is the scarce resource; you’ve got 24 hours in a day; that’s it. Attention is basically time directed to purpose.” 

We need to understand time use analytically, agreed Linda Stone, “But I’m concerned about an overemphasis on time efficiency. After all, leisure is what makes us human. We need to relate to technology so it doesn’t consume us.”

Other examples of the growing need of individuals to exert greater control over “input” come from the media world, where Supernova organizer Kevin Werbach noted that “consumers are taking over: peer-to-peer file-sharing of music, the rise of blogs creating a vast network of amateur journalists, the Net rapidly become a video platform.” New opportunities, yes, but are they also new channels of information that threaten to overwhelm us?

Not necessarily, said Suranga Chandratillake, founder of Blinkx, which provides a one-stop desktop search tool. “The Net is becoming the platform for just about everything, and as it does, virtually everything is becoming searchable. We are quickly moving to a very on-demand world. You figure out what you want, and then how to find the bit you want. Search is one of the most powerful tools; think of how difficult it was to find something in text just a few years ago. Now we’re trying to do exactly the same thing with search for audio and video.”

Because traditional media platforms are closed to most of us, “these new channels offer tremendous opportunities for commercial programmers as well as for universities, companies and ‘us’,” said Jeremy Allaire, president of Brightcove, a new online service for distribution of TV over the Internet. 

As with any opportunity, new channels also bring new challenges. “Media of any kind act as amplifiers for ideas of individuals; it’s all about power,” said Chandratillake.  “With power comes danger. For example, two weeks ago we got a submission from the BNP, the largest anti-immigration party in the UK. Here we are now amplifying the message of an organization that would have thrown me out of England at age three.”

In a world where everybody can broadcast, where everything is reported, there are problems, agreed Marc Canter of, a non-profit whose goal is to make it easy for the public to publish digital media. “But, that also means there will be more often be multiple views of events. For example, police behavior will be reported on by more than just those in the traditional media. No one source can control our view of an event. That’s a tremendous positive.”

More can indeed be better, especially if the content is better than the “58 hours a week of mind-numbing entertainment some people watch each week on TV,”  agreed Mike Homer, head of Open Media Network, a new, free public service for the mass viewing and publishing of content on the web, much of it educational. “We want to reinvent public broadcasting. We intend to accelerate content creation and audience growth, as well as harness the community to help organize, rate and rank offerings. It’s an entirely new landscape for rich media delivery.”