I want my cyborg life

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.

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88 thoughts on “I want my cyborg life

  1. Xianhang Zhang

    As much as I would like to join you in your poly-medium continuous partial attention space, I’ve found that I just can’t do it. Whenever I try to use digital devices to augment a live discussion, I inevitable end up missing important portions because I’m incapable of reading and listening at the same time. (This is different from pulling out an iPhone in a one-on-one discussion where the other participant can wait until you’re back in the conversation).

    OTOH, I’ve found that playing casual games such as Bejewelled actually enhances my auditory concentration by giving my eyes something to do. However, this is even more frowned upon than looking things up in Wikipedia in a meeting.

    I wonder if part of this difference is gender? Are you truly able to keep track of everything that’s going on or is it just that you figure 80% attention in two mediums is better than 100% attention in one?

  2. Daniel Collico Savio

    Hi Danah

    Taking notes was my little runnaway during meetings all of my life. Now with the laptop is very much the same thing.

    The issue is not if you “are” there or not. The notion of presence has changed. The issue is how much do you contribute in the long run.

    PS: we can’t blame Rafael… surrounded has he was by gorgeaus Italian women. Probably sex was his way of “taking notes” during art meetings.

  3. Deirdre Straughan

    In high school, my teachers were irritated that I was constantly doodling during classes, til they realized it actually helped me concentrate on their words. In college classes, with the help of a calligraphy pen, my doodles grew into works of art worthy of framing. My grades left no room for complaint about that.

    I wondered myself what conference attendees could possibly be getting out of the talks they attended when so many of them were clearly focused on their laptops, but your explanation (wanting more information) makes sense. (Even watching TV these days, I’m frequently tempted to pop into IMDB to figure out “where have I seen that actor before?”) Maybe as a society we’re better at multi-tasking than we used to be, because it’s expected of us.

    OTOH, Live-tweeting probably does detract from the level of attention you can give the speaker; OTOOH, it’s a service to others who can’t be there.

    Don’t worry about the Italian professor – Italians LOOOVE to hear themselves talk, with the corollary that they expect the audience to be on the edge their seats for the sheer pleasure of hearing them.

  4. JoRoan

    I work for Linden Lab (Second Life). Many of our meetings are virtual (in-world).

    It’s totally accepted and expected, that there is always a running real-time text chat of commentary and questions while the auditory portion of the meeting is happening.

    We also concurrently monitor multiple IRC rooms of work-related conversations, have Skype and AIM running. And some of us have a Twitter client on our desktop chugging away too.

    Equally so, we are often working on other things during meetings. E-mail, web-browsing, coding, designing… whatever needs to be done.

    This is our everyday working and living environment. And we love it here ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Mike Seyfang

    Interesting observation and a tidy little rant to boot ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Just the other week I was at a conference and got busy with my back-channels and tools of sharing as is becoming the ‘norm’ at geek events. I was quite proud of the fact that I had managed to assemble pictures, audio and lo-fi video during the event, edit them into a little video story then share online.

    I woke up in a cold-sweat at 3.00am the following morning feeling ‘bitch-slapped’ because I had shared stuff that was OK in a room of 1,000 people with the whole world – in a way that could so easily be nasty if taken out of context. And I guess that’s the issue, much of the stuff we share online while enhancing information through our networks of connection leaves a permanent trail that can cause unintended grief. And it will probably take a long time for society as a whole to adjust to the idea that many of us need to be connected and engaged and that the stuff we share remains online, forever.

    I hope we both recover from our ‘bitch-slaps’ and that we don’t shy away from the sometimes uncomfortable consequences of connecting and sharing during events. That would be sulking, or worse, self-censorship.


  6. Ken Kennedy

    danah, thanks for both clarifying and explaining a tendency that I have, haven’t known how to explain, and tend to guilt over. During presentations or even meetings, I often feel to need to make notes of questions, write down topics for later deeper research, or just get my thoughts about a point down. I normally do this on paper, because of the implicit (or sometimes explicit) disapproval of an electronic device. No more. This makes perfect sense to me, and I’m already excited about it. Thanks so much for getting this down on pa…er, you know what I mean. *grin*

  7. Mary Hodder

    i can’t watch a tv show without stopping 20 times to look up and read out sections of wikipedia to compare the truth with the show (we just finished a crash course in 1500s euro history by watching three seasons of the tudors the past 3 wks). i can’t have a dinner party without everyone pulling out wikipedia on their iphones and sharing results. i can’t go to a dinner party without everyone asking about things and then googling the results (recently it was “how many ‘hot jews’ — women — are there in hollywood” everyone except me thot not many, but it turns out there are at least 20 top stars who are very hot). and after the dinner, everyone does a photo and video show on the big screen, passing around a laptop to show off interesting things they know of online.

    i think it’s far more compelling for our brains to answer a curiosity right when we have it, if possible, than to do it old style where you interrupt of can’t ask. and the judgment about that? i think people learn more when there is a need for information than when there is not.

    honestly i think we are just waiting around for some dinosaurs to die off, even though i really want to incorporate views of older people, esp their wisdom and experience, into products, software, political and technology issues. plus build software to help them. but situations like this just make me want to write off those who don’t get it.

    keep doing what you do. it’s is awesome and who cares if you are out front with technology and your work. rock on.

  8. Eric Rice

    Mary totally reminded me about my movie watching habits. Wikipedia + IMDB is a MUST augmented layer for anything I watch (and my wife as well). That’s a LOT of data when you think of a single actor/actress’ filmography etc. Amusingly, I deeply enjoy movies and get lost in the plot, even tho the anti-magic is loading on the second screen in front of me.

    I, too, want (more) of a cyborg life.

  9. Nick Bradbury

    Not to take away from the rest of your great post, but I love this line: “The only thing that I really blame said technology for is limiting doodling practice for the potential future artist.”

  10. Dave Clooney

    Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.

    There are going to be speakers who are irritated by this. The argument goes that you could be learning and thinking and engaging somewhere else (like a library), and that not giving your “full attention” is disrespectful. What constitutes respectful and disrespectful behavior is culturally constructed, and cultures change; you appear to have been caught in such a change in Italy.

    There is a second issue of patience. Specifically, I have come across words and concepts all my life while reading or listening that I did not understand, and have written them down to be looked up later. Sometimes my experience might be enhanced by having the information immediately, sometimes it doesn’t matter so long as I have the discipline to look it up after the talk is over or the chapter is finished. Technology allows us to get more information *now*, but I am unconvinced that now is always better than later, mainly because I think that continuous partial attention is problematic.

    Over the coming decades, I think you are going to get what you want. The demographics are on your side, and most people can type faster than they can write. People passing snarky digital notes during a presentation may be rude, but the value of access to extra information and the speed of typing are going to outweigh old cultural norms which reject electronic devices.

  11. Kevin Marks

    Exactly – live-twittering is how I make notes and gather remote reactions at once – it makes me extra-focused on the speaker, and gives me a wealth of reactions and follow-ups to bring back to the question section.

  12. Wayne Moses Burke

    I envy you your ability to multi-task. When I take notes or look up info or read tweets, I don’t hear what’s being said or follow the presentation very well.

    I’m 38 and my undergrad education was in the extremely linear engineering field – coincidence? Probably not. I think the traditionally masculine fields of science and engineering teach a way of thinking that makes it difficult to follow more than one track at a time. There are a variety of reasons for this, but I suppose that’s a separate discussion. It has also been my experience that there is a sense of superiority in these fields (and the associated manner of thinking) that is derived from the fact that the industrial era was driven by advances in science and engineering.

    This goes a long way to explain the disdain that your sociocybernetic friend felt towards your activities. Clearly, you were not using the methods of learning that have revolutionized the world!

    It makes me wonder if scientists and engineers are getting better with multi-track thinking than they were previously or not. It seems likely, doesn’t it?

    I’ll keep working on it – it gets easier with practice!

  13. zephoria

    One thing that I’m not sure how to account for in all of this is my ADHD. My brain follows threads regardless of whether I have a device in front of me or not. I used to take pills that allowed me to actually stay on the thread of the speaker (aka teacher). I no longer do and I prefer it this way. (Medicated me is not creative me.) So just because I might appear to look like I’m paying attention to one thread does not mean that I actually am. I learned to perform attention in high school. But, as an adult, I’m more interested in learning than in performing like I am. I don’t attend talks or conferences as an act of respect but in the hopes that I might gain something the event, even if what I gain isn’t necessarily what the speaker thinks that they’re there to impart. This is a privilege that I have as an adult that I did not have as a teen stuck in classrooms. Perhaps that’s rude to the speaker. But as a speaker myself, my #1 goal is to get people to think and I’m stoked when my research makes them think differently about the world, even if they only took away one core nugget. (It’s certainly better than most talks which tend to go in one ear and out the other.)

    So anyhow, I know darn straight that I don’t get everything that a speaker says. But even if I don’t have devices or paper or whatnot, I can’t get everything that a speaker says. My brain doesn’t work that way and I’m ok with that. I like my brain just the way it is.

  14. nicole ellison

    danah, I agree with many of your points about the benefits of backchannels — from the audiences’ perspective. From the speaker’s perspective, I’m not as convinced. When I’m presenting, I find it difficult to gauge interest & comprehension when there is no eye contact or other non-verbal feedback, just heads bent over laptops. I guess there are ways around this (e.g., having a TA monitor the back-channel in a class, for instance). Or perhaps if everyone is online, this is feedback in and of itself? ๐Ÿ˜‰
    d, I’m curious – in your own presentations, do you find it disconcerting to have folks on laptops? Is there a critical mass at which it becomes disconcerting? Any recommended practices for making it less so? I’m interested in your thoughts about it from the *speaker’s* perspective.

  15. Alice Robison

    Hey danah, thanks for writing this up. A lot of us feel the same way. I’m working on big project on backchannels as digital literacies and would love it if you’d forward me any particularly good replies you receive as a result of this post. It’s all very fascinating from a rhetoric/literacy/learning sciences perspective. ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. zephoria

    Nicole – Actually, at this point, I find it really disconcerting when people are actually looking at me. And even more disconcerting when I have to rely on a handful of people who will approach me afterwards to gauge my success rather than being able to get a transcript of the discussion or tweets. I’ve learned to take other cues from the audience. For example, I know when I’ve made a point that people like when there’s a sudden synchronous upswing in clicking of the keys. But you can still see if folks are on – it just requires reading different cues and making jokes to see what level of laughter you get. And when you’re not getting much, you don’t have their attention.

    Of course, I’m talking about audiences where the attendees WANT to be listening to me. Classrooms are different. One of the deeply depressing realities of teaching at university is that many of the students are simply not interested in being there. I find this frustrating no matter what, laptops or not. My goal then is to drag their attention kicking and screaming to me by playing games with their attention, visually or otherwise. I don’t expect them to pay attention to me by default; I want to earn their attention… or at least play games with it.

    I also think there’s just an issue of practice. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading all-laptop audiences. I’m TERRIBLE about reading foreign audiences. That’s my biggest hurdle, always.

  17. Kevin Cantu

    There really are experiences so involving that they must be fully lived by all those present.

    You simply must sometimes go skydiving, swim in ocean surf, prepare to be a witness in court, argue about god and about love with people who mean it, and drive a car [i]that[/i] fast. ๐Ÿ˜€

  18. Aaron Matthew

    I can relate as someone who’s also off-pill ADHD.

    In school, I taught myself the skill of ‘weaving’ information – taking the incoming information and forming as many connections as possible with existing information. I’ve always believe that ‘forgetting’ is similar to when computer software has memory leaks: there is data there but nothing is pointing to it anymore so you can’t get to it.

    When taking notes however, I’ve found the information doesn’t get ‘linked’, and instead the brain is occupied with the language and motor centers transcribing the information back out again (in one ear…). Back in school I always used to get looked down upon (by students and teachers) for just listening and not taking notes like my other more studious peers. However, since I tended to have a better grasp of the subject by the end of the lecture, I could ask questions geared towards furthering the connections and cementing my understanding.

    When technology and the backchannel appeared, I found myself making a hypertext equivalent of the ‘weaving’. During slow or largely uninformative lectures I tend to do further research on the topic now instead of daydreaming off when there was no new information to be transcoded.

    I have always looked down on the note taking elements of ‘study skills’ as taking ‘fresh’ information and processing it only once it’s ‘stale’, but I do not feel the same about backchannel discussion or lookups.

    It would be nice if we replaced early school ‘study skills’ brainwashing with a more open discussion about the process of learning (and how everyone does not learn the same way) and the role of technology in this process, but I fear we will have to wait for the ‘old mindset’ to loosen its grip on education for this to happen.

  19. Ingo

    Two comments: 1) Some speakers like audience feedback (really). I think it is quite hard to get feedback from a blue-glow audience, but that may be just me ๐Ÿ˜‰ This is probably less of an issue with large audiences, but in a smaller setting it can become a problem. 2) Text-backchannels during telephone conferences or virtual meetings are, IMNSHO, a symptom of the first mediums’ limitations.

  20. Alexa

    Danah, I recognise my own media habits while reading your rant. I often feel under-stimulated if only paying attention to one channel, and so get distracted. If I have a laptop, I can engage with the content by blogging it, looking up extra details, etc. and it also enhances my recall of the subject. I don’t have ADHD to my knowledge, but recognise some of your strategies for concentration – I feel like I have to keep one track of my brain occupied (e.g. with music, podcasts) while I work, to allow the other part to get into the material. An extreme form is media binging (see Faris’ blog at http://farisyakob.typepad.com/blog/2006/08/media_binging.html), so it seems this is a trend that’s growing.

    Perhaps one of the impacts of growing up with digital media is the ability to monitor multiple channels for relevant information in parallel?

  21. ismael peรฑa-lรณpez

    Interesting post for which I feel 100% empathy: taking notes (usually directly on my blog), looking for translations, downloading cited papers, finding the original slides on slideshare, checking data and definitions on wikipedia, linking the spearkers’ bios or homepages or blogs, twitting quotes or “headlines”, IMing with other attendees, inviting the speakers and attendees to meet on FB, taking photos and editing and publishing along text in my blog, etc, etc, etc. That’s things I do on a normal basis when attending conferences… and even when chairing them or being part of a round table – my own speeches are pre-cooked on the blog and refreshed/enriched live during the Q&A session.

    Regarding being a speaker and laptops, I’ve got two different feelings there. The first one is “why did you NOT bring your laptop? are you taking notes on paper? what then, how are you going to file/search/retrieve them?”. Second one is about people with laptops. As the expert teacher can tell who’s taking notes and who’s sketching just by looking, I think one progressively develops the skills to know who’s taking notes, twitting the event or live-blogging it, and who’s just checking e-mail or tagging photos on Facebook.

    Anyway, I think the debate whether one should stay or listen to the speaker when not interested in their words is a completely different debate than enhanced knowledge management – call it cyborg life ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. John

    I’m sure it’s not the case but “a sudden synchronous upswing in clicking of the keys” could also indicate a point that people find laughable.

    More seriously, the two key issues here are surely how much courtesy/respect an audience owes the speaker and a definitive answer as to whether our new behaviours actually optimise our comprehension or merely give us the feeling that they do?

    I also very much like the idea of back-channels during conference calls, but wonder if you are assuming that your “ignorance” of a particular point is unique – perhaps it might be collectively productive if you actually spoke up and broke up the rigid linearity of the call rather than politely asked elsewhere via the backchannel?

  23. daedalus2u

    Interesting discussion. I suspect that what is going on is analogous to the formation of a new creole, the incorporation of other data transfer mechanisms and channels into communication. I think it is like how sign language only became a natural language when children learned it as their first language. The cohort of children growing up with signing as their first language forced the grammar and syntax to conform to the universal grammar.

    In language, the correspondence between the data stream (the sounds, hand gestures, etc.) and the mental concept the data stream is being used to transfer, is arbitrary, there has to be a mechanism to enforce a one-to-one correspondence in the cohort among which the creole is developing. I think this is where the compulsion for snark comes from; the condescending comment by the person sitting next to you and your own compulsions.

    I suspect that the “snark” is more about process rather than content. I see it as the attempt to enforce a single language via peer pressure. If communication is constricted to only communication media and methods that the snarker can understand, then the snarkee can’t communicate with other members of the snarkee’s cohort without the snarker understanding.

  24. NancyH

    i really agree about the backchannel on conference calls. sometimes i just want to re-state an idea to see if that’s what others heard, or clarify an acronym. our conference system at least can’t handle interruption/multiple voices at once very well, which would be easy if we were all in the same room. you feel much more a part of the conversation that way…it helps build community/relationships with the folks at the remote site. it still takes some discipline not to let it become a comedy routine or distraction, though.

    in a presentation, i sometimes look things up, but i am not sure i’ve found the correct balance in order to keep my attention on the topic. and it does still feel vaguely rude, they don’t know if you’re checking personal email or looking up references. so sometimes i just make a note of something to look up later, and then i can take the time to explore in more depth. in work meetings i make an effort to also make some comment or ask a question out loud if i’ve been typing, to confirm engagement and feedback to the speaker, not just the other members of the (backchannel) audience. the personal relationships and 1:1 interaction is still important!

  25. Sherman Dorn

    I’m having about seven impossible thoughts, but it’s not before breakfast, and maybe they’re incompatible rather than impossible:

    1. My personal quiet rebellion in college to pay attention without taking notes: knitting. I did it most in the 20th c. European history course taught by Jane Caplan. What could a feminist historian say to a man who was knitting?

    2. I probably would not try to start a mosh pit at a linedancing event. Just saying.

    3. I WANT TO KNOW HOW TO READ LAPTOP AUDIENCES!! That’s probably what would convert some part of the people who are uncomfortable with texting/twittering groups.

    4. Academics and others who may be uncomfortable around twittering are just pissed that their learned societies and professional organizations suck up Huge Registration Fees and don’t pay for wifi in the hotels. Twittering was wild at THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp/unconference), and we realized this would have been impossible at most humanities conferences.

    5. I agree on the need to grab student attention, especially selling a course on the first day.

    6. On the other hand (okay, the sixth hand), my experience is that student laptop activity distracts OTHER students in a large class in a way that doodling or other very private activity does not.

    7. Passive laptop activity is not the same as passive smoking; I suspect there are ways around #6 apart from the generic “play games with their attention” advice, or rather there needs to be a repertoire of specific Things to Do so those of us whose brains are atrophying can try them as needed.

  26. Heather

    The key sentence in your blog post for me is: “When I’m inspired, I ask questions. When I’m not, I zone out, computer or not.” I am a former high school teacher and I currently work with teachers at the community college level. Too many teachers blame technology (or the work ethic of the younger generation or video games or you name it) for the lack of attention paid them in lecture style classes. But, like your statement says, it doesn’t matter whether there is a digital device or not. If a student doesn’t want to pay attention, she won’t. But, she can fake it better without the computer and that makes the teacher happier.

  27. Anita Wilhelm

    danah –

    first off, the comment that you make about this incident is 100% correct. the main thing that i found so astonishing at this conference was the complete and utter disconnect between generations and cultures. and moreover, as i think about it, the acceptance of information gathering as a tool.

    you and i, live in a world where access to information gives us sanity, safety, engagement, and freedom. i can’t tell you how many times over the last few weeks, while traveling, did i realize how normal being “connected” is for me and how frustrating it is to have this tool taken away from me. it allows me to formulate plans, to actively think, and to store, reflect, share my thoughts.

    during a presentation or learning environment, it provides me with these same powers and freedoms and enriches my experience. however, that all said, i am also pretty terrible at multi-tasking between two different linguistic forms… so i find myself in patterns where sometimes i will tune in and listen solely, then tune out and read, knowing that i wont gain as much from the presentation, but will probably be utilizing my time more effectively. i think this is probably a reality for many.

    anywho, i think its also worthwhile to keep in mind that during the same presentation, someone in audience also noted “that he had never seen a presentation like that — where someone is sitting on a desk and it’s all pictures.” and another “that his kid could never be how you describe children to be”. it was a very foreign audience, from very different cultural background.

    for me it was eternally eye opening to realize just how much of my digital culture, i take for granted. and just how much … i LOVE it!

  28. David Rogers


    Very interesting post! Thanks for sharing your experience, and also thanks to all the commenters.

    I think your follow up mentioning ADHD (and others’ comments about the challenges they face in attempting the backchannel that enriches your own experience), points to the likely importance of neurology to our differences on this issue.

    Social approval of backchanneling may be shaped by cultural norms. But as these shift, I think we’ll find that the difference in how some of us navigate a world of “continuous partial attention” — for some a boon, for others a drag — will depend on our hard wiring.

    I think it’s a big mistake to attribute this difference primarily to culture (those Italians!), or to age, or generation. (E.g. Mary’s comment that “we are just waiting around for some dinosaurs to die off, even though i really want to incorporate views of older people, esp their wisdom and experience” — From hatred to patronizing in 140 chars!!)

    Let’s all be aware that some of us will thrive nibbling on IMDB.com between spoonfuls at dinner, but others will not — and it’s not just because they are “dinosaurs.”

    Others like Adam Singer have recently commented on having the opposite experience as you (i.e. why multi-tasking hinders them). I was just wrote a post on my blog comparing your two perspectives and the issues for all of us: http://bit.ly/Yng9j

    David Rogers

  29. Blaine Cross

    Love this. First time reader here.
    I work in academia, but I’m not an academic, I’m a web developer. I was trained in research and reading and lecturing techniques that don’t really serve me very well any more. When I attend conferences (technology-related) I engage in exactly the same things you mention, with my laptop. I’m older than you — 47 — so I’m perhaps not as representative of those in my generation. But I completely understand the problems of both sides.
    The big issue for the older generation seems to be respect: give the speaker some attention. But I’ve learned from being a speaker that it goes both ways. Too many mediocre speakers think that they deserve utter and complete attention — and feel disrespected when audience attention strays.
    But at really good tech events, the audience is not less engaged, it is more engaged. The audience/speaker dynamic is changed, and the speakers I’ve become most engaged with want to see a dynamic audience develop.

  30. Matthew Johnson

    Have you ever read John M. Ford’s novel “Growing Up Weightless”? He predicted this sort of backchannel-talk in, oh, 1990 or so (in fact the teleconferencing software in the book was actually _designed_ to facilitate backchannel.)

  31. Ruth

    Reading your post and all these replies reminds me of my high school experience. Laptops were mandatory in the senior school and some teachers did better with this than others – obviously in math it’s less likely you’ll be taking notes with a laptop, but the same people who fall asleep in math class play video games in English. I was always looking up things online as teachers talked about them, and in French class I finished my assigned work early and then worked on a personal project of translating manga from french to english. But in my summer course my professor, who is obviously passionate about what he is talking about and moves so quickly it takes a lot of attention for me to be engaged enough to take notes, bemoaned the fact that laptops were now allowed in lectures and that he was sure that most students who had them in class were off somewhere else. As someone who can touch-type much faster than she can write, and has only a textedit window open, I find this rather insulting. And if I didn’t know I needed to take notes to retain any information and he moved more slowly I would likely be wikipedia-ing things as he spoke, because that’s how I studied for my most recent midterm.

    So I guess you know you’re preaching to the converted, and when you spend all your time with a group of people for whom this is the norm it’s always strange to feel the disconnect in another situation. Every year my family used to go away to Florida for March Break, two weeks or so, and this would signal an offline time for me. There was an extensive detox period you might call it (if we could remove the negative connotations) as google and wikipedia and IMDB twitched in my mind like a phantom limb all day. Eventually you get used to not knowing things and sometimes this is useful – in the middle of writing something – and sometimes it’s a lack.

  32. Diane Trout

    Some of this reminded me of an old paper I’d read The ActiveClass Project:
    Experiments in Encouraging Classroom Participation

    They’d written a custom application with an “understanding meter” where students could rate the material as “I understand or don’t understand”. Also since some students are shyer and are afraid to ask questions publicly (for fear of looking dumb), their software included a way to semi-anonymously submit questions via their hand-helds.

    More recently I also saw a video of a talk where the moderators were picking questions for the speaker off of twitter, which seemed much more efficient than passing notes or having people stand up at a microphone. (And twitters 140 character limit forces the questioner to get to their point, in the large public venue so many “questions” are really “mini-talks” by someone with a particular ideological leaning).

  33. WDF

    I think your post crosses most if not all of the points discussed by John Medina in “Brain Rules”. See http://www.brainrules.net/attention.

    It seems to me that you were trying at the lecture to keep your attention in the game by your active engagement in looking up info, scanning papers, and such, and no one could really see what was in reality happening. Accordingly, they made judgments to fill in the spaces.

  34. Harry Pence

    I think that you catch the essential problem when you say,”Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.” I have long ago decided that many of these situations become clearer if one asks the question, “Who is in control?” The audience is taking more control of the presentation and many speakers just can’t accept this. Some say that the time of a “sage on the stage” is past, but there are still many who refuse to accept this change. If the speaker is forcing the audience members to really think about a topic, the speaker is doing his or her job. It is up to the audience to decide WHAT to think.

  35. Riaz Kanani

    One of the best posts I have read (as opposed to scanned) in ages.

    It is interesting I think that we have all this info at our fingertips but right now its not completely easy to get access to it. The iphone was a major jump forward for me as I always have it on me – carrying a laptop around is rare for me.

    I do think though that once that access becomes mainstream and open to everybody the majority will still not make use of it. Using it instead to kill time in some as yet unthought of way..

  36. Tantek

    danah, thanks very much for writing this up.

    i’ve experienced similar situations too many times to count and as a result my perspective used to be quite unsympathetic of existing norms.

    lately however, i’ve tried to broaden my perspective, and now seek a peaceful transition to our brave new cyborg world.

    how can we help transition those that want to, and provide easy small steps to help broader norms evolve to become more cyborg-positive?


  37. orcmid

    I like this post. I can understand the appeal.

    At 70, I am also one of the dinosaurs, although I take notes during conference calls and at meetings and events. I use a Tablet PC specifically to avoid creating a barrier between me and others at a face-to-face meeting of any kind (although I have been using it more than a laptop lately, especially if there is WiFi, and I must stop that).

    I mostly don’t have a dividable attention and I have to be careful. Notetaking is a way for me to pay attention and to create markers for myself as well as observations that I don’t want to forget. I don’t keep multiple chats or anything like that on my desktop, I don’t keep a twitter stream open or at least not in site, and I don’t have anything firing off alerts. I also power-down my phone on the way into meetings and events.

    For me, this is all about differences in styles and probably also generatiional differences in managing attention, moderated by whatever adaptation that age requires.

    The one concern that I have is about listening. Devoted listening provides something to the speaker. It is as if even the one-wayness has some two-way quality to it. Since I learned about that and experienced it enough times, I find that I do more to pay attention. Some speakers, you included, make that easy to do. Others are clearly unaware of an audience (and I may be one of those too). If I can’t stand it and cannot be generous in listening, I will take a walk. That seems less damaging to the space.

  38. Dr. Adam M. Goldstein PhD MSLIS

    One of my library school professors berated me in front of the class for IM-ing during class. I was taking notes. I felt so angry but there was nothing I could do. I am astonished that at my library school, only one professor was not hostile to laptop users. WTF!!!!!


    Some observations from the college teaching front—

    (1) Some students really do take notes etc. on their laptops. They are definitely paying attention.

    (2) There are very, very few students who do that though, and instead are surfing the web, chatting, etc. They may as well not be present at all. Others complain to me about it—when the person sitting in front of them is looking at the latest fb photos and really IS laughing out loud, it’s distracting. If many students are checked out in this way, it’s like we’re in a meat locker. Some people are there in body but not spirit.

    (3) If surfing etc only happened some of the time, it wouldn’t be a problem. Who am I to say where someone’s mind might wander? People can doodle and daydream and that’s not harming anyone, and is probably a necessary mental break. But when the situation described in (2) is routine, something has to be done.

    (4) Idea: require everyone that is using a laptop in class to email me or the class as a whole at least two references to relevant documents online they’ve found during class.

    (5) I don’t know what legitimate use an iPhone or BB can have in class but I suppose the same requirement as in (4) might work to keep students focused.

  39. Jay Fienberg

    One observation: I think you may be inadvertently downplaying the importance of the “tasks” of “receiving”–e.g., the outward social gestures and expressions that you need to make to reassure other people that what they are doing for you (for your sake) is OK with you.

    In some sense, it’d make sense at this point in time, if speakers got up in front of everyone and said: I’m OK if you aren’t looking at me and are using your computer, because I can trust that you are receiving what I am saying in the way that works best for you.

    But, if there’s isn’t some shared understanding about that being an agreeable form of interchange, it shouldn’t be that surprising that people expect “default” social interchange–e.g., expect others to look at them, smile or nod occasionally, and otherwise, on cue, make outward gestures that reaffirm that society hasn’t collapsed, that no predator is about to pounce, no one is about to completely freak-out, etc.


    Conferences often have a weird social convention of being shut down with regards to communicating any social expectations–e.g., when you go to a conference, if you are “in,” you already know what is cool to do and make a point of doing it; and if you don’t already know (or, don’t care), then you stand “out” in the crowd and everyone else can perceive you as one who does uncool things.

    In your scenario, imho, it really was the job of the conference organizers to tell everyone if there was any expectation about how people should act in the audience.

  40. amy.leblanc

    this theme has come up in many conversations lately, from whether it’s “rude” to be surfing your iPhone during group dinner or a meeting to the recent proposal to add “internet addiction” to the list of mental disorders in the DSM to (our mutual) friends’ observations during their summer travels that people in other countries don’t have devices connected to their bodies, and seem happier.

    i think, as many others have said, that it all depends on how you, as an individual, process information. part of it is generational, part of it how you’ve learned to learn, part of it inherent brain-capacity limits that maybe you don’t have control over. some people simply can’t read and listen at the same time. other people find themselves wandering too far afield if they start looking up things, and miss the point of whatever they are experiencing. but some of us have seemingly limitless sponge-brains that thrive off multiple information sources, and shouldn’t be chided for doing so.

    i can see how all of this is extremely useful at a lecture/conference/museum, where the point is to LEARN and absorb as much as possible, but do you feel the same way about use of laptops/iPhones/blackberries during casual conversations or gatherings, where the persons present simply don’t stop looking at their screens, even while you’re talking to them, or do you put it all away? because that’s where i think things like lack of body language and eye contact start to get really aggravating and override any “data” input. i’ve just started saying: look it up later. talk to me.

  41. Yishay

    some time ago we were doing a project with veterinary students. we gave them mobile phones with cameras, shozu and unlimited internet, and asked them to capture anything interesting, tag it, upload and use that in their tutorials. The students loved it, the tutors loved it. Only problem? How do you use the kit without other medical staff or clients thinking that you’re mucking about? A pad and pen says “I’m a good boy taking note(s)”, a gizmo says “I’m playing”.
    Then there’s the power issue. Who owns the narrative? I love having a backchannel when I’m speaking, but that’s just over-confident under-serious me. No connectivity means knowledge flows from me, the speaker, to you, the reciepient.
    And finaly, your brain, my dear, works different. Years of chatrooms and IMs have made you capable of multiplexing in a way that only fighter pilots could 20 years ago. For the etruscan chap sitting next to you, following more than one thread is just not possible. Hence, if you are reading you can’t be listening.

    Although, on second thought, having obsereved Italians in a tratoria, he should know better.


  42. Jess Austin

    Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has a number of classroom scenes that address this issue. Since in that somewhat dystopian future the only subjects taught are search and mashups, and the teacher is paying just as much attention to firewall traffic as to the physical class, it seems to work. In fact, the teacher chides students who just sit there during lecture, rather than running relevant queries, etc. The generational dynamic is also explored, since several of the “remedial” adult students thrown in with a quite mediocre teenage cohort had actually been brilliant professionals only a couple of decades before.

  43. amarez - mszv

    I think that we think of it differently. I think (perhaps I’m wrong), that you think of it as garnering “information”. I think that what we pull in comes in different forms – a look, a gesture, what’s said, not said, implied – how the speaker engages with the audience. When the questions get asked – that gets interesting. Thinking about it, I have a greater comfort level with the backchannels during the question and answer period, but I know that people are going to do whatever they want. To me, there is a difference in how we engage each other when we are in a physical space. Virtual space has some of the qualities of a physical space, but it’s also a little different – more flitting around. Perhaps you want to combine the interactions in a physical and virtual space. That’s interesting. It’s also interesting for me to think about I would present in front of a group of “key clickers” who don’t look at me. That’s a challenge, to present in front of people with different public styles. I prefer people to look at me when I present, so I’ll have to think about how I’d engage the people who don’t look at me.

    I do take notes at a talk or a lecture, because it helps me to concentrate on the speaker. I do it because it helps me zone in, and stay in. If I want to look something up, I’ll do it later, because the moment where the speaker is present – that moment will not come again.

    Getting back to different styles, perhaps – as another poster noted – the expectations were just different, between different groups of people. Being in an audience is a form of public discourse. Perhaps your form of public discourse was different from some of the other members of the conference.

    On teaching – one of the best teachers I ever had found a way to engage the class, by asking questions, and engaging the students. One thing followed up on another, and so you had to pay attention. The teacher was super nice about it, and didn’t care if you used a laptop or other device, but it was important in the class to be there, in the class, engaged with the teacher and the students, real time. I always try to see how my teaching or presentations can be better, and I plan to use that technique when I teach, if I can. Sadly, it’s not the sort of thing that I think you can use in presentations.

    On multitasking – from what I’ve read – we can’t pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking means zoning in and out of a variety of things, quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it to stay focused, on the one thing, but sometimes I think it does. When my surgeon was operating on my knee, I sure hope that there was some focus. That’s what it’s about for me (though I’m not a surgeon!), trying, and sometime failing, to be focused, to be in the moment.

    Interesting post, and an interesting discussion.

    amarez – mszv

  44. Meep

    I see two different problems – disatisfaction with the traditional lecture format, and a desire from older people to receive genuine interactions from others.

    The lecture lends itself to doodling, daydreaming, and general slacking off. The old model is no longer relevent today (or even in the past), as people are just as capable of self-directed or assisted learning. There is no partnership or a sense of discovery. It is a read-only format, with handraising a hack to get students to stop drooling on their notebooks.

    The second, larger issue which plagues many people my age is the lack of ability to create genuine interaction with each other. I never felt close to people when they peer at me from their laptops. The design of laptops even makes sharing a struggle – you can’t just bend it so that viewing or control can be shared. It is a solitary activity. There is nothing more disheartening than a sea of laptops in a coffeeshop, a place where ideas were frequently shared. Now, it is people working and sharing with people miles away and ignoring the person close to them, a magical moment of human interaction that has been missed.

    Perhaps I should add that I am only 24 years old.

  45. Virtue

    I am aware that this is a little bit of a tangent, but there is a point here that I think runs parallel to danah’s post…

    it pains me that profs come up with various schemes to deal with people using their laptops in class: It is a very ableist assumption that everyone has the choice of taking notes with a laptop or by hand. Some students with disabilities (such as myself) have to use a computer to take proper notes.

    So, please, don’t do #4 and make everyone that is using a laptop in class email the prof or the class as a whole at least two references to relevant documents online they’ve found during class. Many people already carry the assumption that students with disabilities are being lazy or milking it for extra gain. I, and others like me, don’t need the added insult of being penalized with extra work because we don’t happen to learn/function in the very limited ways that traditional education deems appropriate.
    And so, in connection, it seems to me that to do anything otherwise seems contrary to the call for acceptance of the original post…

  46. amarez - mszv

    After my long post – I realized – I’m so sorry – I think that I missed the obvious!

    Remember, danah, how much you liked the public life of Italy – cafes spilling over with people? Well, that’s what that means – you interact with people, the people in front of you. If you can’t “interact”, as in converse fluently in Italian, then you give them your physical attention. That’s what you do. Maybe the younger Italians would be happy to be blogging, tweeting, IMing and not making eye contact (things do change), but for the older Italians, that would be rude and disrespectful.

    We are also talking about Italy here. I realize it’s been a number of years since I’ve been there, but, for all the modernity, this is more traditional culture, also a culture where interaction with people is important. Italians, by and large (always exceptions of course), are social. I also remember the Italians (and I was all over Italy, though it’s been a number of years) as being very polite. This was the place with the most gracious cell phone manners in the world. When the Italians (big cell phone users) got or made a call, they were very discreet about it. Again, it may have changed, but electronics were not impinging on the public space. It’s also traditional, in that you were dealing with older Italians, older than you, at least – people who didn’t grow up surrounded by electronics and also grew up in culture of manners. So of course, given the culture and the age – that’s what you, and all the other participants were expected to do – give them your physical attention. It wasn’t a “one way street” – along with you paying attention to them speak, they would pay attention to you, when you spoke, even if their English wasn’t very good. If you didn’t speak Italian well, and had trouble following – that didn’t really matter. Politeness demanded that you pay attention, in the traditional sense. Paying attention in the traditional sense means that you make eye contact, you watch the speaker, and you listen.

    What you did was so very American, but then again, as far as I can tell, not unlike the Italians, who are so Italian, wherever they go (rampant generalization). In that way, Italians and Americans strike me as kind of the same. You weren’t the social scientist, looking at the norms of behavior, like you do in your research. You expected the conference to follow your norms, instead of the norms of the conference. You were also so convincing, so articulate in your blog post, that I responded to what you were saying and forgot to think about the situation.

    That’s how I look at it.

    Now I miss Italy.

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