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New Fast Company Column: Social Networks and the Brain

This week's Fast Company column is now up: Social Networking and the Brain: Continuous Partial Empathy? asks whether the way we use social networking technologies is ultimately making us better people -- or worse...

Social technologist Linda Stone talks about "continuous partial attention," a condition of modern life where we need to pay ongoing attention to multiple streams of inputs, but can only provide limited degrees of attention to each. Superficially similar to multitasking, the real point of continuous partial attention is that it's continuous--it's not just a workload issue. While we may be able to handle the demands of continuous partial attention for awhile, it eventually becomes exhausting, and even the limited levels of attention suffer.

What Damasio's work suggests to me is that there's a point where an insufficient amount of attention given to a potentially moving encounter means that little or no empathy--compassion or admiration--will result. And while paying attention to another person is important, offering empathy is much more critical. Social numbness simply can't be healthy for a functioning society.

Let me know what you think.


Hmm? Oh sorry! I wasn't paying attention!Er...what was that about considerate marketing?

Actually, I wonder how this fits in with the 'glib' and shallow phrasings and responses we tend to associate with marketing types and other intensely socially networked extroverts?

(Having just had a running and quite reasonable email discussion with someone in the recruitment industry. So much for cliches)

Didn't we hear the same argument before, on numerous occasions (video games, tv, cell phones, cubicles, laptops, the web, ...)? Or the earlier, the dehumanizing aspect of industrialization, urbanization, etc.
We were evolved to run naked in the savanna. Anything else is contrary to our nature. Yet it hasn't stopped us from progressing beyond the savanna, and adapting to our new modes of life.
This too will enter our daily lives, and be seen as normal, until the next one (which, with the accelerating technological progress, will be soon enough).

I am a marketing type - this sort of behaviour isn't, obviously, limited to being caused by social networking applications. The technology itself, sitting, staring at screens instead of people can cause that social numbness.

It is a contradiction caused by technology and population. WE can be more connected to many more people and be more productive but at the same time lose the chance to form closer bonds with a select group of people.

Continuous partial attention probably also has the benefit of cross-polinating ideas from different disciplines - which results in higher creativity. It is a mixed bag like always - a double edged sword.

Culture and culture(s) probably play a large role in ameliorating this issue.

Perhaps it's a reflection of the total atomization of people under a social/economic system of capitalism and an individualized "market."
Human interaction is removed to a greater distance and continually re-focussed on the users ability to "manage" their relationships and environment without messy and complicated reciprocal social bonds forming.
The technology is driven by the economic and social relationships behind it, but magnifies the effect.

I first heard of Stone and "continuous partial attention" from Dave Davison of Thoughts Illustrated several years ago. Thanks for raising the concept again. Some thoughts, somewhat related.

One, "continuous partial attention" has been around for a while. If you think of the lifeguard at the beach, the beat cop on the busy street, the teacher on the playground at recess etc. it is a capacity we all have. Monitoring many variables, even on a scattershot basis, is mentally fatiguing so it is done in short bursts where safety is an issue.

Secondly, CPA has implications for how we think about attention economy strategies for our memes. Acute focus? Ubiquitous background? "Pulsing" in and out of attentional frames?

Thirdly, I'd like to see the neurolearning data on this from MRI brain scan studies in a meta-analysis ( if there is enough out there for a meta-analysis). There would be, I will speculate, certain efficiency gains in rapidly shifting attention with comprehension that would translate into neuronal connections. What atrophies though, if anything? Ppl like Nick Carr report loss of ability to concentrate for extended periods of time on hard texts after years of internet exposure but frankly, that could be correlating with normal aging and lifestyle changes.

Maybe it is the egg and the chicken story.
Maybe social networks are a feeble attempt to fight against loneliness? I have the feeling that in modern times people are getting more and more isolated so they attempt to overcome loneliness by engaging in online social interaction. But internet users tend to relate only to their circle of friend, in a more impersonal way and they rarely create strong bonds through this virtual networks.

My hunch is that overcoming partial or splintered empathy (rooted in splinteres attention allocation) will require new abstractions and technologies that push our topsight of social systems, while allowing us to tunnel in further. Iow, make it easier for me to empathize with society, biology and the cosmos by organizing all that data into a pretty picture, or such.

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