is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Living in New York, I can easily get by with rarely ever driving a car. Which, when I think about it, really accounts for the fact that I’m not dead.
That’s because I’m afflicted with a particular kind malady that a friend and colleague of mine calls “transportation narcolepsy.” That’s a condition in which, whenever I board a plane, train or automobile, I’ll fall asleep, almost instantly — or at least struggle to stay awake.
It’s the steady, vibrating motion of most mechanized transportation — the hum of a car on the road, the regular propulsion of a train on tracks, the muted rumbling of jet engines on a plane — that knocks me out. I’m surprisingly baby-like; rock me back and forth a little and I’ll pass right out. (It’s compounded by the fact that I rarely get enough sleep to begin with.)
This past weekend, though, I rented a car during my visit to California and discovered that having a G.P.S. unit on my dashboard is a surprisingly effective way to keep me awake. I also discovered a little something about what it takes to hold my attention.
The Tedium of the Open Road
Usually, I find road driving — especially highway driving — to be incredibly boring. I’m just not cut out for it. My sensitivity to the steady motion of a car, combined with that basic disinterest in the act, makes for a potentially deadly combination when you sit me behind the wheel of a moving automobile.
But having a G.P.S. unit to add another object of visual focus to my attention really helped. I was able to see both the road directly before me and, through the G.P.S., what was further ahead at a more ‘macro’ level. Rather than just staring straight in front, I spent time trying to figure out what was the overarching route that the unit was following. (It took me through some unexpected and questionable turns on California’s labyrinthine freeway system, but all told, it did a respectable job of getting me to my destination.)
I noticed almost straight away that managing both the windshield’s real-world interface alongside the G.P.S.’s digital interface woke me up; I was more alert, more responsive and more interested in what I was doing behind the wheel, and in those respects anyway, the additional burden of switching focus between the two had a positive effect on me.
Continual, Partial, Attentive
What I was doing in effect was dividing my attention, or giving partial attention to two systems at once. You might call it multi-tasking, or you might say it was a form of what Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention,” a modal behavior in which we consistently stretch our bandwidth for concentration in the often false hope of maximizing our effectiveness:
“Continuous partial attention is motivated by a desire not to miss opportunities. We want to ensure our place as a live node on the network, we feel alive when we’re connected. To be busy and to be connected is to be alive.”
When Stone discusses this concept, she often cites email, Blackberries and social networks, among other technological tools, as prime instigators of this behavior. We use these technologies, she contends, as a method of feeling at one with a network, so that we can monitor the network’s stream of data for opportunities upon which we can capitalize — opportunities of all kinds, whether financial, social or psychological.
At first, I wasn’t sure if this instance of driving was a particularly good example of continuous partial attention. I wasn’t at that moment connected to my email or a peer group at all. It was just me. Then I realized: of course I was: through the G.P.S., I was hooked into a network of satellites which were reading my position and sending a stream of data back to me.
What I was doing in the car, in essence, was scanning multiple inputs — the road and the G.P.S. — for the best possible opportunities, confirming that I was taking the most efficient path to my destination, constantly checking the visual display on the G.P.S. against the actuality of the road.
The fact that the process actually made me feel more alert also maps to Stone’s concept; the act of continually handling data energizes us. Juggling two inputs while driving put my brain to work in pretty much the only way that it has become accustomed to: receive data, evaluate that data, act on that data, repeat. It was much more effective than the single, sleep-inducing input of just watching the road.
I think there was something else at work here though, something that’s not necessarily exclusive of continuous partial attention: the idea that, like probably many others, I am addicted to interfaces.
This is how many of us spend most of our lives: sitting in front of computer screens that are transmitting data to us for evaluation and action, over and over again, countless times a day. Like many people, I have a much heartier stamina for working long hours while huddled in front of my computer than I would have for staying awake past, say, ten o’clock while reading a book. That’s because with the former, I’m being engaged in that ‘receive, evaluate, act’ pattern to which my brain has become accustomed.
Even when we’re not working, we’re demanding interfaces everywhere. We’re adding digital complications to devices as simple as toasters and refrigerators, and proclaiming that interfaces are the solution. Even our forms of media are themselves being further mediated by interfaces: turn on virtually any channel on your television set, and you’ll see a screen overlaid with multiple data points, typography, read-outs and inputs. These interfaces are giving us the illusion of productivity and efficiency, when in fact in many cases they’re simply interfaces for interfaces’ sake. They’re satisfying an overarching desire by people like me who just feel ill at ease unless information and tools are somehow being filtered through design.
As an interface designer, I worry a bit about how I’m contributing to this. We’re so focused on creating ways of mediating the world through symbols and interactions — and we’re propagating those mediations so effectively — that we’re losing our ability to simply experience the world, unmediated. To be sure, driving south on California’s 5 freeway is hardly getting back to nature, but the fact that my brain can only stay awake when presented with the diversion of an interface is somewhat worrying to me.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, actually. This has already been a long and rambling post. But I do know for sure that we’re in a different kind of world now, where many of our quotidian experiences are substantially different than they were for previous generations because our brains are demanding different kinds of engagement. My overall contention is that, as designers, we’re helping this situation through our work — somehow. But I can’t yet discount the possibility that we might be making it worse, instead.+