Around the turn of the century, tech-industry veteran Linda Stone coined the term, “continuous partial attention.” This state is, in the words of her June interview in The Atlantic, “the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything.” The challenge is “bringing one’s body and mind to the same place at the same time.”
Personally, I don’t have any difficulty barreling down Interstate 64 at 70 mph while talking on my Bluetooth headset, texting, changing the XM station, glancing at the GPS, asking Siri something, and perhaps shaving. I guess others just aren’t as good at it.
Studies, however, show that we are not nearly as good at multitasking as we would like to believe. In an extensive recent study, 70 percent of University of Utah undergrads rated themselves as “above average” at multitasking. Those same self-raters were also tested as having higher-than-normal impulsivity, sensation-seeking behaviors, and overconfidence problems. These jugglers also scored lower on simple cognitive and memory tests. In short, continuous partial attention has its costs. Ironically, the most frequent multitaskers scored lowest at multitasking ability. The more you do it, the worse you get.
Ultimately, Stone worries that continuous partial attention models “a primary relationship with a screen” rather than with eye contact with people. “It can feed a kind of sociopathy and psychopathy,” she says. “[People] learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze … if our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.”
This takes the conversation beyond a vehicle safety lecture and into a pointedly spiritual realm. It’s one thing if continuous partial attention makes us scatterbrained. It’s quite another if it destroys relationships, degrades community and makes us less capable of compassion. Texting or looking at your iPhone during a worship service? Raise your hand if you’ve done it. What if it has actually negatively lowered your ability to be a full participant in empathy for others? Raise your hand if you’re going to stop.
So instead of silencing your phone at worship, here’s a radical thought: leave it in the car. And if you see me fiddling with my phone on the highway, please tell me to shut up and drive.