aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Saturday, March 25, 2006
Perpetual Partial Attention
A blurb in the Times today:
Just three short years ago - an eternity when you consider the explosive growth of the online juggernaut - regular Internet users already spent 25Ã‚Â½ hours a month sitting at the computer, the Nielsen/NetRatings study says. By now that has shot up to 30Ã‚Â½ hours - fully an hour a day. (It’s a wonder that people still also have time to watch the vast quantity of television they do. When do they wash the floor? Practice piano? Do laundry?)
The answer is: they don’t watch TV. It’s on, but they’re not paying attention. On the Web, we give/get full attention. My audience is smaller and asynchronous, anonymous and fickled (staying only so long as it wishes), but I get its full attention. Much more on that in a future post.
In 1997 I coined the phrase “continuous partial attention.” For almost two decades continuous partial attention has been a way of life. In order to cope and to keep up with responsibilities and relationships, we’ve stretched our attention bandwidth to its upper limits. We’ve used technology...as a way to think about how the brain works and, interestingly, we seem to think that if technology has a lot of bandwidth, well so do we…
With continuous partial attention we keep the top level item in focus and then we scan the periphery in case something more important emerges. Continuous partial attention is motivated by a desire not to miss opportunities. At the heart of it, we want to ensure our place as a live node on the network. We feel alive when we feel connected to others. To be busy and to be connected is to be important… Speed, agility and connectivity have been top of mind and marketers have been humming that tune for almost two decades now.
Between the extraordinary amount of information technology available today, the need to network and the always on lifestyle, we are increasingly over-stimulated, overwhelmed and unfulfilled.
I’ve recalled her term as Perpetual Partial Attention, and prefer it so I will keep it. The idea had never occurred to me even though at about the same time she coined it I moved from the always on lifestyle she describes so well to one where I “regulate my inputs.”
That’s my phrase, and not nearly so poetic, but descriptive nonetheless. I do not listen to my voicemail, read my email, answer my cell phone - or even my home phone - unless I choose to. I do not own a Palm Pilot anymore after migrating from the original Casio Boss (pictured?) that I upgraded with each new iteration from the early 1990s. I could type with my thumbs as quickly as with a full keyboard (and I did save my full address book which now resides in MyYahoo!)
So I’ve got the input part down pat; it’s no longer a problem. Now, as a budding-blogger, the trick is: to regulate my OUTPUT!
LATER: See also Perpetual Partial Attention II.
On Ben Domenech & subliminal racism
This I posted back in October in the context of Bill Bennett’s “[Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down” comment and then again in December for Blog Against Racism Day.
It seems the great conductors of the world once innocently believed that men were innately better musicians than women and orchestras were male bastions. When one day, through a set of fortuitous circumstances, a male maestro auditioned a woman he thought was a man (she auditioned from behind a screen) he hired her. And when screens were broadly adopted it became clear to everyone that women were every bit as talented musicians as men.
What once was “obvious,” that men were better musicians, is now obviously not.
His story is to illustrate the power and peril of subliminal snap judgments. Says Gladwell [clip]:
There are certain things about somebody that all of us are really really good at knowing right away, and certain things that we may think we’re good at knowing that we are profoundly not…
Sexual attractiveness, you can do like that…
When we have real experience with something we are good at making profoundly good snap judgments, but in almost every other situation where we do not have that level of expertise our snap judgments are bad. And as a society I feel we are way too cavalier about the products of our snap judgments.
After his talk, during the questions, Gladwell made this observation that I have seen made no place else [clip]:
I have become convinced since writing this book that juries should never be able to see the defendants in a jury trial; that that is just crazy. Why? Because the kind of snap judgments a jury is likely to make about a defendant from seeing the defendant are all irrelevant…
Every year someone stands up and points out that there are huge differentials in the conviction rates and sentences for blacks and whites convicted of the same crime. And yet we make that observation and kind of shrug and say, “Well, that’s America.”
We don’t have to live with that. Why don’t we do something about it?
I would bet every dollar I own that if we put the defendant in a backroom and had the defendant answer all questions by email that the gap between black and white defendants, the sentences and conviction rates would shrink.
I absolutely believe that.
I do too.
On Ben Domenech & self-esteem
Dr. Carol Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, a recognized world leader in the study of personality, and author of Mindset—The New Psychology of Success. She spoke with Dr. Moira Gunn in an outstanding Tech Nation podcast. In this clip she speculates on a couple famous plagiarism cases:
There are these famous cases of Janet Cook and Stephen Glass, famous young reporters who made up stuff. Had to give back a Pulitzer Prize. Had to leave the New Republic in shame. What was that about? Were they just cheaters with deep down bad qualities? I think they were like the children in my studies who received lavish praise for their intelligence or talent and then didn’t feel that they had the luxury of learning. Maybe Janet Cook and Stephen Glass felt they had to be brilliant right away. They couldn’t take the time to learn the ropes and do the legwork and yes, they came out with these great stories right away, but they weren’t true.
It’s about self-esteem [clip]:
Self-esteem per se is just fine, but I think we have a misguided model of what it is and how to promote it. We think it’s something that you can just pump into a child the way you inflate a tire. And we think we can do that by telling them how great they are. That’s the misguided part.
In our work we’ve shown that telling children how great they are… makes them very happy for a few minutes, but it makes them completely unable to cope with setbacks. How does it do that? ... Well it puts them into a fixed mindset. It tells them, “Hey, you did well on this test. That lets me read your underlying fixed ability and I think it’s pretty good.”
But it also tells children the name of the game is to look smart. So that when we then offer these students a chance to do something that stretches them and would help them learn, they say, “No thank you. I’d rather keep on looking smart.”
We also showed that when they then got something that was more difficult, they crashed. They said, “I guess I’m not smart after all.” They lost their enthusiasm for the task and their performance went way down. Incidentally this was an IQ test, so praising their intelligence made them less smart.
And, um, that’s not just some liberal claptrap using the underlying reason to justify the crime or coddle the criminal. It’s about using the underlying reasoning to understand in order to better prevent future crime!
On Ben Domenech & racism - Telling it like it is
I have been watching the Domenech developments all week. Too busy for thoughtful comment, too much for the limits of quoting, I have said nothing.
Steve Gillard is generally too strident for my taste but I am a regular reader and often agree with him nonetheless. Today he’s mad. Rightfully so. He answers Ben and Mike and says many, many important things that need to be said on their (our?) racist assumptions.
I wholly agree with him on this, and believe he makes his case completely and convincingly. Read him. I’ve found no other commentator saying it.
I might add on my own that it would be easier to accept the Domenech defenders’ and friends’ prescription - just punishment followed by forgiveness, “his character is not irredeemable” - if it were a formula applied through their public policy recommendations for all of us rather than merely a plea applied to one of their own.
LATER: Oh, and I agree with all who make what should be (but is not) the obvious point that the Post should not be hiring political activists to balance non-partisan journalists.
Religion or conscience
A long review by Martha Nussbaum writing in The New Republic of Kenji Yoshino’s Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights includes this passage on the founding fathers’ notion of religion and conscience:
If Yoshino had gone into the religion cases, he would have had to face an issue that he nowhere faces: what reasons for exemptions from laws of general applicability should a legal regime recognize? Or, to use Yoshino’s language, what types of covering should it forbid? Ours has focused on the specialness of religion--after all, that is what the free exercise clause protects, not the “free exercise of culture,” or the “free exercise of identity,” or anything else. “Religion" was clearly understood at the time of the founding as a broad concept: early drafts often use the term “rights of conscience,” and my guess is that the final wording came in only because of the decision to focus on “exercise” as well as belief, and because the phrase “free exercise of conscience” was an anomaly, just not a phrase that anyone had used in these debates.
Whatever the Framers meant to protect (and we should remember that around 80 percent of Americans in the early years of the republic were not members of any organized church, though most were Christians of some kind), the tradition of interpretation has understood the notion of “religion” relatively capaciously--at the very least to include non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. During the Vietnam War, the Court went still further, giving exemptions from the draft to two young men whose beliefs were sui generis. One, Seeger, called his view “religious” and provided a metaphysical account to go with it. The other, Welsh, crossed out “religious” on his conscientious objector form, and plainly had what we might call a comprehensive ethical doctrine entailing non-killing. The Court stretched “religion” to the limit here, obviously trying to show respect for conscience even when conscience did not take an organized or traditional shape.
I’m not sure whether the review is behind a paid wall or not, so have excerpted more of it for conrtext` in the extended entry.
Neo no more
Fukuyama offers firm recommendations about the struggle against terrorism. He says, “The rhetoric about World War IV and the global war on terrorism should cease.” Rhetoric of this sort, in his view, overstates our present problem, and dangerously so, by “suggesting that we are taking on a large part of the Arab and Muslim worlds.” He may be right, too, depending on who is using the rhetoric. Then again, I worry that Fukuyama’s preferred language may shrink our predicament into something smaller than it ever was. He pictures the present struggle as a “counterinsurgency” campaign - a struggle in which, before the Iraq war, “no more than a few thousand people around the world” threatened the United States. I suppose he has in mind an elite among the 10,000 to 20,000 people who are said to have trained at bin Laden’s Afghan camps, plus other people who may never have gotten out of the immigrant districts of Western Europe. But the slaughters contemplated by this elite have always outrivaled anything contemplated by more conventional insurgencies - as Fukuyama does recognize in some passages. And there is the pesky problem that, as we have learned, the elite few thousand appear to have the ability endlessly to renew themselves.
RELATED, “An Essay From the New York Times Magazine Adapted From the Book:” After Neoconservatism.
Education is subservient to razzmatazz
The Georgia Aquarium - “not created by a municipality, or a society of subscribers like those that founded the earliest public zoos. It is almost completely the creation of a single man, Bernard Marcus, co-founder of the Home Depot” - as metaphor for our times:
[E]very gallery (and a 3-D theater) bears the label of a corporate sponsor: AirTran, BellSouth, Georgia-Pacific, Home Depot, the Southern Company, SunTrust Bank. If old-fashioned princely patronage was meant to reflect glory on royal powers, a similar goal is apparent here.
But the aquarium does not woo or court its visitors. It means to overwhelm them the moment they pass through a narrow entrance walled by swimming fish and enter the cavernous central space, where public dining areas are surrounded by entrances to thematic galleries - “Ocean Voyager,” “River Scout,” “Cold Water Quest” “Tropical Diver” and “Georgia Explorer” - that almost seem like entrances to amusement park rides. [...]
In Atlanta, too, river fish are glimpsed in an atmospheric, jungle-like path with rippling light and water - a latter-day variation on aquariums’ once-standard grottos. And perhaps most dramatically, there is the sight of a small school of golden trevallies, swimming in perfect formation, inches from the grim mouth of a 17-foot whale shark.
Yet to discover that those fish are trevallies, I had to search. Labels are either nonexistent or uninformative. One is often meant to browse through touch screens of images that offer minimal enlightenment for maximal effort. The galleries are organized around habitats, but they provide no information about what effects these habitats have on marine life or how animals function within it. Without enough context, it is astonishing how often these carefully planned routes devolve into miscellany. [...]
The lack of information and the inconsistency of imagination are strange, given the ambitions and accomplishments of this institution - including an educational program that draws schoolchildren with an apparently detailed curriculum. It is as if once the big effects were created, the creators relaxed into routine. Why though, is there a reluctance - here as in so many other museums - to provide real information for those who want it? Or to design exhibits that don’t just create atmosphere but spur understanding? The now requisite messages about conservation are pumped into a 3-D cartoon, but even they have no real import. ...[T]his aquarium’s risks are not of tanks fracturing or sea water growing stale, but of isolated spectacles and too little information.