05/25/2009 11:33 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Attention Economy: Or, Who's Paying Attention Now?

Attention was the theme behind the San Diego Emerging Technology Conference back in '06. I always think back to this time because that was when the big thinkers (their words) thought of something that was ridiculous and kind of funnyl: Continuous Partial Attention, or CPA.

In an era when we finally identified "Restless Legs Syndrome" as a dysfunction we can't live with, we are glad to see there is finally a term to refer to our way of not really paying attention to anything.
Linda Stone, former Apple and Microsoft executive, was featured at the Emerging conference to discuss this modern phenomenon. She spoke to an audience of people with their heads stuck in their laptops and BlackBerrys. Not a great audience, but an ideal illustration of CPA.

Open communication channels, nonstop e-mails and status updates and "What's On Your Mind," plus interruptive instant messages, and ever-updating Web feeds have caused us all to fade our attention in and out. Continuously. A fine coping mechanism, but surely it's a problem in the workplace when the interruptions intrude on tasks that require someone/anyone to concentrate. Constantly checking for new messages or updates on or Feedblitz signifies a disinterest in a situation you are not committing to.

Everyone seems to have forgotten 90 percent of success is just showing up...and staying shown-up!

People are more and more interested in what else is going on rather than what is happening in front of them. It is making the person who finally does capture the concentration of a CPA-infected individual feel as though each moment is a struggle to keep that person listening. Take you for instance. You've already tuned out in this sidebar while we are trying to help you tune in. Are you still here?

"Constantly being accessible makes you inaccessible," said Stone, explaining the phenomenon.

A notable resource for the CPA-afflicted is our friend Mark Ellwood at The Web site was created by the company Pace Productivity, whose business is helping others improve productivity through time studies, consulting, and training programs. Pace vows, "Once we know how your time is spent, we can show you how to be more effective in meeting your objectives and competing better." Ellwood relies on a scientific method to help us get our respective shit together. His company even offers an electronic time-tracking device to help us manage what time we spend on specific tasks.

Technology has created new ways of communicating that help pass information quickly over serious distances. What it hasn't succeeded in is making communication any easier between human beings. How many times have you sent an e-mail that got misinterpreted? When we are not face-to-face and talking to or touching each other, communicating a message is a difficult navigation.

So what can those who sell for a living (most all of us) take from this dissertation? Well, we're fighting harder than ever to get the attention of anyone. Fast, focused, and easily absorbed ideas are dominant. Finding seamless ways to insert your company's message into our daily tasks will be a true necessity. Diverting someone's attention away from something and toward your message is going to be the ultimate fighting challenge in this befuddled era.

Don't you wish we could go back to when CPA made you gulp and think, "Oy. Tax time"?
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Read more about CPA in the brand new paperback Punk Marketing out now from Harper.