Ever heard of “continuous partial attention”? Maybe not. But you’ve probably engaged in it. And it’s a critical component underlying a techno-cultural seismic shift that’s happening as we speak.

Let me back up a bit. Continuous partial attention is the brainchild of Linda Stone, former Microsoft and Apple researcher and world-renowned specialist in understanding and quantifying human productivity. She recently spoke at the Collaborative Technologies Conference in Boston, a standing-room-only session covering technology and the business issues related to next-generation collaboration.

Stone’s thesis, amply backed by research, is that continuous partial attention characterizes the way most of us react to the world most of the time. It involves constantly scanning multiple sources of information (e-mail, instant messages, RSS feeds, TV, podcasts) paying partial attention to each. (Hint: If you’ve ever checked your e-mail during an audioconference, you’ve done it.)

That’s different from old-school multitasking — talking on the phone while stirring a pot of soup, for example — which involves doing multiple non-intellectual tasks at the same time.

So far, so good. But Stone goes further. Her thesis is that technology and culture interact, and moreover, that cultural shifts happen in approximately 20-year cycles. For example, the period 1965 to 1985 saw the growth of the stand-alone PC.

The period 1985 to 2005 was typified by a focus on connectivity, and saw the growth of the Internet and myriad social networks (Friendster, MySpace). With the explosion in connectedness came a huge uptick in “information feeds,” leading to a concomitant explosion in continual partial attention.

The intriguing bit is that we’re again on the cusp of a major transition, according to Stone. The focus for the next technocultural wave (from 2005 to 2025) will be on simplified, trusted communications.

We’ll be looking for tools that help us sort through the chaos of over-connectedness and replace it with “meaningful” connectedness: Instead of tracking 3,000 online friends, we’ll deepen our connection with the three or 30 friends who really matter.

If the metaphor for the first generation was the PC and for the second generation was the Internet, the metaphor for this generation is the “dashboard”, a tool that simplifies multiple sources of information and allows us to focus on what really matters.

Now, I’ve written before about the “real-time communications dashboards” that are combining presence, voice, video and contextual awareness. But it’s intriguing to consider they might be more than just nifty productivity tools — they may be, in fact, metaphors for the next wave.

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–Johnson is president of Nemertes Research. She is at [email protected].

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