Directory of Attention

This week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about attention:

If you feel the Internet has both blessed you with an abundance of information and cursed you by drowning you in it, I have one word which might help make sense of it all: attention. (And, if you give me enough of your attention, I promise to give you a tip about how to cope.)

It’s beginning to dawn on people who ponder these kinds of things that it’s attention, not information, which lies at the heart of the new online world. In a world full of information, the scarcest commodities are your eyeballs and ears.

Here are some links to find out more. Suggestions very welcome, as ever.

Attention, according to The Attention Trust, is the substance of focus. It registers your interests by indicating choice for certain things and choice against other things. Any time you pay attention to something (and any time you ignore something), data is created. That data has value, but only if it’s gathered, measured, and analyzed.

A definition of Attention Data from Chris Saad. And I like this one from, again, The Attention Trust:

When you pay attention to something (and when you ignore something), data is created. This “attention data” is a valuable resource that reflects your interests, your activities and your values, and it serves as a proxy for your attention.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Attention Economy, and The Attention Economy: An Overview from the excellent Read/Write Web, are also well-worth a read (as well as the comments.) A look at Google’s role in all this from Sam Sethi, who asks: Is Google building the Attention Economy?

I quoted liberally from Anne Zelenka, who is writing a book on this kind of thing. Check out her blog here, and a great piece she wrote on where attention fits into the whole Web 2.0 thing.

Stuff to play with:

  • Particls, formerly Touchstone, which is a ticker that tries to understand you or tick you off. (My description, not theirs.)
  • I didn’t have a chance to write about Attensa for Outlook, but it’s trying to do something a bit similar.
  • Or the AttentionMap, which “helps you keep track of your attention on a daily basis.”

See also my Directory of Lifestreams

The Wandering Mind

Piece from AP about how the mind wanders. Towards the end it gets interesting: to what extent is a mind wandering at its best? I’m sure I’m not alone in consciously seeking out places and situations in which my mind can wander unfettered — a hike, a jog, a swim, a lie by the pool, even going to sleep.

clipped from www.usatoday.com

Schooler is exploring the idea that mind-wandering promotes creativity. “It’s unconstrained, it can go anywhere, which is sort of the perfect situation for creative thought,” he said.

Mason points out that just because the human brain wanders doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a good reason for it. Maybe, she said, the mind wanders simply because it can.

But even she sees an upside.

“I can be stuck in my car in traffic and not go absolutely crazy because I’m not stuck in the here and now,” she said. “I can think about what happened last night. And that’s great.”

Movies vs Games. They’re Not the Same

A remark by Will Wright picked up by Jason Kottke captures why movies and computer games are different, and why we should not think one is going to edge out the other. I would add something else: Computer games allow us to experience emotion, while movies allow us to feel those emotions vicariously. We have no control over those emotions on film, since they’re being manipulated by the director of the movie — sometimes crassly, sometimes brilliantly. But we are passengers. With computer games we are in the driving seat.

clipped from www.kottke.org

Notes from Will Wright’s keynote at SXSW 2007. “Movies have these wonderful things called actors, which are like emotional avatars, and you kinda feel what they’re feeling, it’s very effective. Films have a rich emotional palette because they have actors. Games often appeal to the reptilian brain – fear, action – but they have a different emotional palette. There are things you feel in games – like pride, accomplishment, guilt even! – that you’ll never feel in a movie.”

Recycling Publishers’ Rejection Letters

I’ve been looking at Printing on Demand recently — more of which anon — and was pleased to see there’s now a way to recycle publishers’ rejection letters By Printing Them On Toilet Paper:

Now, authors whose work has met similar rejection are getting the chance to put it behind them and simultaneously start to get even — thanks to a website that lets them print their rejection letters onto rolls of customized toilet paper.

Lulu (www.lulu.com), a site that enables anyone to publish and sell their own book, eBook, calendar . . . and now toilet roll, without some lofty editor first having to grant permission, is offering the groundbreaking new service — at http://www.lulu.com/tp — to highlight that it does not reject any legal and decent material.

 

Jim’s Answer To The Moleskine

My friend Jim was passing through town the other day, and we compared Moleskines. Or rather, I brought out my immaculate Moleskine and he brought out a black pile of something or other. I asked him to tell me about it in response to a comment from someone about the benefits of the Moleskine pocket on an earlier post. Jim posted his comments here but I reproduce them here in full, along with pictures:

To add to the great debate, Moleskin versus Miquelrius.

My qualifications, in brief, included 14 years in journalism, consulting, peacekeeping and roaming the world for other NGOs and international organizations. As a shorthand writer as well as one time foreign correspondent and official diplomatic notetaker, I think the old fashioned paper notebook is more reliable, in the long run, and less intimidating. It can transition gracefully from presidential palace to remote village. It doesn’t get crushed, run out of batteries or attract attention. Wrap it in a Zip Loc bag and its waterproof.

While I like the Moleskine’s “high end” features such as the strap, pagemarker and back pocket useful, it has drawbacks. The Moleksin has less volume, therefore I use one every three months as compared to a Miquelrius every eight months, even with extensive notetaking. This means the Moleskin is less useful as a portable archive.

Size does matter, but the Miqquelrius is still small enough to fit in a trouser pocket.

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (open)

The Moleskine is also more expensive, so using them more frequently adds to the cost.

It is narrower more difficult to do good shorthand. The width also limits your ability to sketch and draw, everything from organigrams to the scenery.

My solution? Improvise with the Miquelrius to get something just right. Add a small envelope to the back. I use left over wedding RSVP envelopes:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook pocket #3

I generally use two green elastic bands for section dividers. I picked those up wrapped around my vegetables from Trader Joes. The elastic bands the postman leaves behind also work:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (wide)

Pages can also be marked with Post-It Flags, paper clips and regular Post-It Notes folded back into the page you last used. My pictured notebook has been around the world a few times, including to a few remote African and Indonesian villages. It looks a bit tattered by the time you get it back to Washington, but I reckon there is nothing better for your “street cred” as a guy who knows what’s going on in the field than walking into a meeting with a weathered notebook.

Thanks, Jim.

How To Get a Good Idea, Part I

Reading at the moment Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who mentions the trick German experimental physicist Heinz Maier-Leibnitz used to do in boring conferences to entertain himself and to measure the lengths of his trains of thought — microflows, in Csikszentmihalyi’s words. The passage is conveyed in full here:

Professor Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, a German experimental physicist, suffers from an occupational handicap common to academics: having to sit through endless, often boring, conferences. To alleviate this burden, he invented a private activity that provides just enough challenges for him not to be completely bored during a dull lecture, but is so automated that it leaves enough attention free so that if something interesting is being said, it will register his awareness. What he does is this: whenever a speaker begins to get tedious, he starts to tap his right thumb once, then the third finger of the right hand, then the index finger, then the fourth finger, then the third finger again, and then the little finger of the right hand. Then he moves to the left hand and taps the little finger, the middle finger, the fourth finger, the index, and the middle finger again, and ends with the thumb on the left hand. Then the right hand reverses the sequence of the tapping, followed by the reverse of the left hand’s sequence. It turns out that by introducing full and half stops at regular intervals, there are 888 combinations one can move through without repeating the same pattern (Csikszentmilhalyi 1990).

The point about this is it’s not so much a game as a way of measuring the length of each microflow — a train of thought that takes a short journey, while being vaguely aware of what else is going on. Csikszentmilhalyi was able to use his finger tapping technique to measure precisely the length of each microflow.

Reading this it occurred to me that many of us do our best thinking stuck in boring meetings, services, concerts, films or seminars. The mind, trapped inside an immobile body, escapes on all these little excursions, returning with all sorts of insights. So why not make more of this?

Why not set up deliberately boring concerts, conferences, speeches, plays, operas and monologues so people looking for a place to ‘microflow’ can find a sanctuary? You could even charge them money. Or, if you’re someone looking for microflow yourself, you could scour the local whats-on pages for boring events which you could attend, confident you’d find a bit of peace and boredom to allow your mind to wander around in. One could even start listing such events on upcoming.org or somesuch, encouraging others to seek a piece of ‘microflow space’.

The other thought I had about this is that when conference blogging takes place, does this remove the opportunity for wandering minds and microflow? Do the bloggers, connected in their own Wi-Fi world, then just create an alternative social space, removing the conditions that might have led each of them to great internal intellectual feats? Or does the very fact that bloggers are at the conference mean it’s unlikely to qualify as boring anyway?

A Short Essay From Jef Raskin

Further to the previous post, honouring the fact that Jef Raskin passed away last month, I thought I would post a little essay he sent me a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

Genesis and Goals of The Humane Environment

Our increasing knowledge about human behavior and mental processes, as applied to interaction with our artifacts — knowledge based on observation, on testing, and on empirical results in cognitive psychology — leads to the conclusion that the human/machine interfaces of current computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and much more are often flawed. Their interfaces features often derive from faulty precedents, and on inadequate models of and incorrect informal guesses about human performance. In particular, GUIs (such as Windows) used by hundreds of millions of people reflect these problems in abundance.

A more accurate external model of human mental processing leads to quite different interfaces than those we now have. One approach to applying this knowledge has resulted in “The Humane Environment” project. There is no reason to believe that it is the only approach or the optimal one, I do claim that it is considerably better than current practice or alternatives of which I am aware in terms of speed of learning, productivity, and the feeling of trustworthiness. Not only applications, but programming languages and software development systems are also human-machine interfaces and their design can benefit from developments in cognetics. (Cognetics is the engineering of products to accommodate human mental abilities and limitations; an analog of the better known ergonomics, which guides the design of products to match human physical attributes.)

My background has biased me toward that which is quantitative, deductive, empirical, practical, and humanitarian. Applying these criteria reveals that only a small fraction of books and articles on interface design are applicable to development in any rigorous sense; most are hortatory, few get beyond offering heuristics, many are irrelevant or simply wrong. The quantitative tools that are available in this field are unknown to a majority of practitioners, as I discover nearly every time I give a lecture to audiences of professional or academic HCI practitioners — a situation that I find deplorable. (My evidence comes from asking people at my talks whether they know this or that quantitative method. Usually only a few hands are raised). The HCI research literature is often pathetic, with poor experimental design and overblown conclusions. Very common are studies that compare a particular instance of technique A that is superior to an instance of technique B. They then conclude that technique A is superior to B; ignoring that it may have been a great example of A and a very poorly implemented B: Conclusions that go beyond the premises is a common error in the field.

The weak research and the widespread belief that the way computers are is how computers must be, coupled with the bias toward standard the GUIs built into current operating systems and development environments, has stymied progress. The importance of habituation and of our single locus of attention, for example, have not been widely recognized.

The theoretical reasons for believing that THE is an improvement over current designs are very strong, and equally strong is our experience with the SwyftWare and Canon Cat products that embodied the principles and some of the technology of the text portion of THE (which is inherently usable by the blind). The zooming interface implemented at Apricus Inc. showed the effectiveness of the graphical portion. When theory and user testing meet in this way, and a refactoring of how computers should be used yields a much more compact design while offering users and programmers greater power than present systems, I have considerable confidence in the work. Many people are also intimidated by their fear that any change from the Microsoft Windows way is doomed to failure because of its large installed base. Perhaps they have never heard of Linux, they are not entrepreneurial, they are doomed to nebishhood. Sufficiently better products can penetrate the marketplace.

Considering the millions of person-hours that can be saved, the mental toll of frustration that can be eased, and the physical pain that can be prevented by putting THE into the world, I feel compelled to work on and promote it — and to try to motivate those who can help to do so.

News: Six Degrees Reborn

 I think Friendster is probably a more dynamic version of this experiment, but it’s interesting anyway. Duncan J. Watts, author and Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia, has launched an experiment to update the 1967 findings of social psychologist Stanley Milgram who coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ by testing the hypothesis that members of any large social network would be connected to each other through short chains of intermediate acquaintances.
 
 
The test is basically to give folk a package and ask them to pass it onto someone who could deliver it by hand to the addressee. They then hand it onto someone they know who may be more likely to know that person, or someone who knows that person, etc etc. As Watts points out, Milgram’s experiment was flawed, and didn’t really prove the hypothesis. So it could be interesting. Sign up if you want to participate.
 
My tupennies worth: As Malcom Gladwell’s excellent “The Tipping Point” points out not all people are equal. Some folk know no-one (me) and some know everybody (my friends Grainne and Ditta) so in my case I’d just give the package to them.