Doug Clow rants about being told off three times yesterday for live blogging at the OU Conference by people who found it distracting. He was so demoralised by the experience that he’s not taking his laptop to the event today.
Many years ago I asked someone who was sitting next to me at a US conference if he could stop typing as I found it so distracting. It is not in our national nature to complain like this (Doug points this out too) and I kind of regret it to this day. At the time though I was not used to that noise and could not concentrate properly on the speaker.
I’ve been to countless events since where laptops are ubiquitous and many meetings where the few people without laptops look uncomfortable. When coming to the OU though I pretty quickly dispensed with it and went back to paper at most meetings despite the inefficiency and wastage involved. Why did I feel the need to do this?
- Having a laptop in front of you is a physical and symbolic barrier between you and the other people in the room, particularly when no-one else has one.
- There’s a kind of intangible social pressure – you don’t want to appear like a geek or that you’re not giving the meeting your full attention.
- I actually do want to focus on the meeting (normally) and don’t want to be distracted by email, blogs (and now twitter)
It’s only a question of time before laptops start penetrating this institutional culture in the way they have in more technical meetings and conferences, and among students in lecture theatres. Wireless is a must-have at many events now and I was deeply frustrated at the Oxford Shock conference recently because the connectivity was sporadic.
Wireless and laptops at conferences are good for many reasons. You can check out the speakers’ blogs or visit websites they’re talking about for further info. If the speaker is tedious you can get on with something more useful. You can deal with email build-up so it’s not so bad when you get home. On the downside you are not able to switch off from daily work and immerse yourself totally in the event.
Conferences are somehow fundamentally different from smaller meetings though. At a meeting, communicating with others through email, twitter etc is verging on inconsiderate (unless no-one can see your screen and they think you’re taking notes) Conferences are a more ad-hoc mixture of learning from others’ experience, presenting your own experiences and social interaction. It’s too late now to think that this interaction can or should be just with the people in your immediate proximity. You’re connected to others elsewhere who may be interested in the event you’re attending, and you’re following what they’re doing. You’re multitasking; perhaps you’re not giving the speaker your full attention but it’s the job of the speaker to make their talk compelling enough that you do.
Ironically, Doug was altruistically both giving the speakers his full attention and trying to give others the benefit of their wisdom by blogging about it. He needs to get a laptop with a quieter keyboard and carry on blogging.