Berrybites, and reality bites

Patrick, in comments to my early post about the effects of blackberries and other push e-mail devices, recounts his experience of a meeting where nine out of ten of the people present – well – weren’t:

“They would look up upon hearing a word they find interesting, then went right back into their text-messaging. Then during Q&A, one guy asked three questions in rapid succession (all of which pertained to topics we had already discussed in our presentation), then promptly went back to typing in his SK. After answering his questions in rather lengthy detail, the presenter (our Exec Creative Director) asked him whether or not we’ve addressed his concerns, he replied: “uh, more or less.” never once loosened his grip on his opium pipe.”

Was talking with Foe about this again tonight, and realised that of course, I have done the equivalent of this in meeting rooms that have wifi – checking my email, or attending to some other work, while being copresent, but not really concentrating on the content of the meeting. Is is again the effect of the tools? Having ‘prescence’ in buddy lists means you are available for chat or queries to others. Do we now think that it is enough to be ‘present’ in reality – available, but not concentrating – awaiting a call to participate rather than participating by default? Would we be more productive or creative and less stressed if we opted out of one ‘buddy list’ of prescence – perhaps even sometimes the physical prescence. Just be honest and say – “You know what? I shouldn’t be here if I’m not concentrating on this.”

I know that Joi Ito has written a lot about his thoughts on “m-time and p-time” before now – I really should go back and read it more thoroughly.

All of this thinking about berrybites and the technologies that create constant partial attention put me to mind of the first time I heard the phrase, on Neal Stephenson’s well page – and how much of the communication technology we think essential to productivity is nothing of the sort:

“Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe life in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, cellphones, and other distractions. This curious feature of modern life poses a problem for a someone like me. Every productive thing that I do requires ALL my attention.

I cannot put it any better than Donald Knuth, who writes on his website, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. ”

Knuth also provides the following quote from Umberto Eco: “I don’t even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.”

One other thought – form factor.

Different form factors set up different spaces of interaction and particpation around them. Handhelds and laptops, while seeming quite different in form-factor – both create ‘private’ spaces for different reasons (size for handhelds, lids for laptops) which have similar impacts on the feeling of the social space around them.

I wonder what meetings feel like if the particpants are still connected but using devices with form-factors that create ‘semi-private/semi-public’ interaction spaces around them, e.g. tablet PCs. Does anyone have first-hand experience?

0 comments
  1. Abe said:

    Does anyone at all use tablet PCs? Other then the custom ones that UPS uses? There are actually a bunch sitting around my school, I believe delivered by Linda Stone actually. No one ever uses them, ever. The problem I think is they are too niche, too big to compete with a blackberry or treo, and lacking a keyboard not versatile enough to replace a laptop. They have two main points where the form factor is really useful, around a conference table and when you need to do computer stuff while standing. The former is why Bill Gates pushed them so hard (wonder if he actually uses his), but the later seems to be the only real market.

    Funny how many variations on that idea there are. The Cross pen that transmits digital springs to mind, and there are some over digitizing note pads I’ve seen. Think its because the idea comes across great in upper management meetings. A product designed especially for the conference table is really easy to get greenlighted I bet. But a lot harder to sell, especially when it costs north of a grand and overlaps deeply with other equally expensive but more entrenched products…

  2. paulpod said:

    I actually made the decision about a year ago to really make the most of my attention in meetings and the like. This includes (unless i’m leading it with bulletpoints/drawings) not making notes but instead listening and thinking more, being in and of the moment, extracting the last nuance of the situation which you can’t do while simultaneously recording it. (OT: which is also why i don’t engage in “life cacheing” to the same degree as some of my peers)

    I have toyed with the idea of using a dictaphone to handle that side of things, but realistically transcription would not get done in a timely manner. Better to have other people at a event do it for you. Very lazyweb!

    If you see me on IM, something is either up or i’ve been requested to visit that space. I’ve also been known to unplug the router at the office for a couple of hours to “get things done”.

  3. Ben Gibbs said:

    I’d place the blame on the meeting. The ‘berry is just a symptom of the fact that your meeting is probably 99% useless to the attendee. If your meeting is important and the people who matter are still ignoring you then your company has big problems – leave now, run, don’t walk…

  4. charlie said:

    eh, i think so much about crackberry email is this feeling of importance – ‘i need to keep on top of it all!’ i’ve long ago picked up a reputation for being anti-laptop at meetings. i ask people to go elsewhere if they need to check email or to turn off their machines.

    also, i think ‘partial attention’ means ‘no attention to anything’. it’s a half-assed way to go through the day – multi-tasking foreground activites is impossible.

    i spent 12 years at the lab bench where you need to run multiple background things at the same time. but you could only do one forground task effectively at a time. true multi-tasking (even with computer operating systems) is to do one foreground thing and many background things. doing multiple forground things is stupid, a complete failure.

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