What attention is not?

When I talk about my researches on the management of the attention, sometimes
people misunderstand due maybe to the fuzzy notion of attention. Idem in a project context, sharing common and clear understanding about the key concepts of the project is something very important and avoid some future problems ;-).
Indeed if I use wikiepdia to better understand what the attention is, I will have:
“Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. [..]. Of the many cognitive processes associated with the human mind (decision-making, memory, emotion, etc), attention is considered the most concrete because it is tied so closely to perception”. The authors use then the definition of William James defined in Principles of Psychology, 1890 “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” .
Even if everyone knows the global meaning of attention, I’m not sure everyone clearly know what is/could be the management of the attention and notably in a social context. A good exercice is to try to differenciate the concept of social attention from peripherical (and so, parasitic) concepts to understand where the distinction is. In our case these parasitic concepts are awareness, time management, social interaction.

Attention management is not just time management
In Wikipedia [3], Time management is defined as techniques for planning and scheduling time, usually with the aim to increase the effectiveness and/or efficiency of personal and corporate time use. But first, attention and time are not in the same dimension. Attention is a process when time is a unit. Secondly Of course as any human activity you can measure attention with the time, but it’s not the only factor to take into account, you have the quality of attention, the person’s engagement: when I’m attending to a boring meeting, my attention is low even if I’m spending my time on it. Thirdly there is also a spatial dimension, the selectivity of the attention: where am I paying or not my attention? Managing attention is all about intention, and making choices as to what does and does not get done. it’s not the same kind of management as Managing time which is all about lists, tasks, optimization and efficiency.

Social attention overload is not just interaction overload
Even if the notion of information overload is more used, the notion of interaction overload is not new [5,6] (1998). There is interaction overload if a person receives requests or is engaged in interaction with others at a level exceeding his or her collaborative preferences. But first this interaction overload is just a part of the new social attention problem. L. Stone describes notably a new factor: the new age of Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) [5]. “We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything. It is an always-on, anywhere,anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking”. Secondly With this new age, new communication usages come up called “semi-sync communication” like I.M. and text messaging that are often used semi-synchronously. People take calls on their cellphone while they are on lunch break. And even worse, according to a recent study 22% of German cellphone users report having interrupted sex to answer their cellphone [10]. Being part of an opportunity-rich social network matters most. In his blog Jamais Cascio wrote about Continuous Partial Social Attention [9]The purpose is to maintain a social relationship that could otherwise wither if left only to transient links like email, phone calls or in-person visits involving an artificial sense of constant intimacy . Another example of this trend is the recent phenomena of Twitter, a very simple addictive service used as a nano-blog system to say to our friends what we doing right now [7].

Social attention is not just awareness
Moray [1] describes the notion of situation Awareness [8] as knowing and understanding what is going on around you and predicting how things will change, or, in other words, “being coupled to the dynamics of your environment».
Like the situation awareness , social attention as “a generative process of knowledge creation” [12] in which “[…] the environment informs the agent, modifying its knowledge. Knowledge directs the agent’s activity in the environment. That activity samples and perhaps anticipates or alters the environment, which in turn informs the agent” (Smith & Hancock, 1995, p. 142).
But first, awareness is not about resource allocation. Awareness is just a part of the attention process. Attention is also the selection, the focus of a subset of this gathered information (awareness) according to the user’s intention (goal/interest/tasks). Furthermore attention model try to describe or predict the best allocation strategy according to given criteria, like the user’s goal, interest, social relationship, time and make choices. Awareness is just about gathering the environment change over time. Secondly in a more traditional virtual workplace [2], awareness is considered as a secondary goal, useful for the first goal which is completing tasks in collaboration, whereas, in our context of community, social attention is a critical factor due to the fact it’s not about task but about sharing knowledge and communicating.

I will finish by the words of Donald Knuth[11]: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

[1] Banbury, S. P., Croft, D. G., Macken, W. J. & Jones, D. M. (2004). “A cognitive streaming account of situation awareness”
[2] Carl Gutwin, Saul Greenberg,“A Descriptive Framework of Workspace Awareness for Real-Time Groupware” , Computer Supported Cooperative Work Vol 11, issue 3 (2002)
[3] Definition of Time management, wikipedia
[4] Linda Stone “Partial continuous attention”, 2005
[5] Fredrik Ljungberg, Carsten Sørensen “Are You “Pulling the Plug” or “Pushing Up the Daisies” 31th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-31) IEEE(1998)
[6] Carsten Sørensen, “Interaction Overload: from diffusion to diversion”,Social Study of Information Technology Workshop, LSE, 2001
[8] Situational awareness, wikipedia source
[9] “Continuous Partial Social Attention”, http://openthefuture.com/2006/08/continuous_partial_social_atte.html
[10] Article “Cell Phone Users Interrupt Sex for Phone Calls”
Donald Knuth, wikipedia source
[12] Smith, K., & Hancock, P. A.. Situation awareness is adaptive, externally directed consciousness. Human Factors, 37, (1995)