For the last few years, I’ve been spoiled. I’ve been surrounded by people who, when asked a question, immediately bring out a digital device and look it up. The conferences that I’ve attended have backchannels as a given. Tweeting, blogging, Wikipedia-ing… these are all just what we do. It’s not all there – it’s still broken. My cohort is still always in search of a power plug and there’s a lag between the time a question is asked and the point at which the iPhone’s slow browser is loaded, the query is entered, and the answer is given. Still, we’re getting there. Or so I thought.
In Italy two weeks ago, I attended Modernity 2.0 (in the lovely Urbino hosted by the fantastic Fabio Giglietto). There were two audiences in attendance – a young cohort of “internet scholars” and an older cohort deeply invested in sociocybernetics. At one point, after a talk, one of the sociocybernetics scholars (actually, the former President of the sociocybernetics organization… I know… I looked him up) began his question by highlight that, unlike most of the audience who seemed more invested in the internet than scholarly conversations, HE had been paying attention. He was sitting next to me. He looked at me as he said this.
It’s not very often that I feel like I’ve been publicly bitchslapped but boy did that sting. And then I felt pissy, like a resentful stubborn child bent on proving him wrong. Somehow, as I grew my hair out and became an adult, I also became less spiteful because boy was I determined to bite back. Of course, I haven’t become that much of an adult because here I am blogging the details of said encounter.
There’s no doubt that I barely understood what the speaker was talking about. But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own.
But, of course, the attack was not actually about the reality of my internet habits but the perception of them. There’s no doubt that, when given a laptop in a lecture setting, most people surf the web, check email, or play video games. Their attention is lost and they’ve checked out. Of course, there’s an assumption that technology is to blame. The only thing that I really blame said technology for is limiting doodling practice for the potential future artist (and for those of us who still can’t sketch to save our lives). Y’see – I don’t think that people were paying that much attention before. Daydreaming and sketching (aka “taking notes”) are not particularly new practices. Now the daydreamer might just be blogging instead.
My frustration at the anti-computer attitude goes beyond the generational gap of an academic conference. I’ve found that this same attitude tends to be present in many workplace environments. Blackberries and laptops are often frowned upon as distraction devices. As a result, few of my colleagues are in the habit of creating backchannels in business meetings. This drives me absolutely bonkers, especially when we’re talking about conference calls. I desperately, desperately want my colleagues to be on IM or IRC or some channel of real-time conversation during meetings. While I will fully admit that there are times when the only thing I have to contribute to such dialogue is snark, there are many more times when I really want clarifications, a quick question answered, or the ability to ask someone in the room to put the mic closer to the speaker without interrupting the speaker in the process.
I have become a “bad student.” I can no longer wander an art museum without asking a bazillion questions that the docent doesn’t know or won’t answer or desperately wanting access to information that goes beyond what’s on the brochure (like did you know that Rafael died from having too much sex!?!?!). I can’t pay attention in a lecture without looking up relevant content. And, in my world, every meeting and talk is enhanced through a backchannel of communication.
This isn’t simply a generational issue. In some ways, it’s a matter of approach. Every Wednesday, MSR New England has a guest speaker (if you wanna be notified of the talks, drop me an email). None of my colleagues brings a laptop. I do. And occasionally my interns do (although they often feel like they’re misbehaving when they do so they often don’t… I’m more stubborn than they are). My colleagues interrupt the talk with questions. (One admits that he asks questions because he’s more interested in talking to the speaker than listening… he also asks questions to stay awake.) I find the interruptions to the speaker to be weirdly inappropriate. I much much prefer to ask questions to Twitter, Wikipedia, and IRC/IM. Let the speaker do her/his thing… let me talk with the audience who is present and those who are not but might have thoughtful feedback. When I’m inspired, I ask questions. When I’m not, I zone out, computer or not.
My colleagues aren’t that much older than me but they come from a different set of traditions. They aren’t used to speaking to a room full of blue-glow faces. And they think it’s utterly fascinating that I poll my twitterverse about constructs of fairness while hearing a speaker talk about game theory. Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.
I’m 31 years old. I’ve been online since I was a teen. I’ve grown up with this medium and I embrace each new device that brings me closer to being a cyborg. I want information at my fingertips now and always. There’s no doubt that I’m not mainstream. But I also feel really badly for the info-driven teens and college students out there being told that learning can only happen when they pay attention to an audio-driven lecture in a classroom setting. I read books during my classroom (blatantly not paying attention). Imagine what would’ve happened had I been welcome to let my mind run wild on the topic at hand?
What will it take for us to see technology as a tool for information enhancement? At the very least, how can we embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts? How I long for being connected to be an acceptable part of engagement.