I just returned from my second conference in three months, an unusual occurrence as I don't travel much for this job. I used to travel fairly frequently to conferences for my last gig. I've noticed some things are still the same: lots of PowerPoint, that shell-shocked look people get after a day or two of back-to-back sessions, the inexplicable popularity of karaoke at "social" gatherings, the logo shirts in the exhibit hall.
One thing has changed, though. I don't think people talk to each other as much. I don't smoke but I get cold in chilled meeting rooms, so I usually duck outside several times a day to warm up. I used to strike up conversations with others who were outside for a smoke or a breath of fresh air. Now, it's rare to get an opening as most folks seem pretty intent on checking messages and otherwise interacting with their smartphones. I see the same thing in common areas around buffet tables and sitting in rooms waiting for presentations to start.
I had noticed this but hadn't really thought about it much until I saw a silicon.com piece based on an interview with Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, and the author of "Alone Together," a book about technology's impact on human relationships. Turkle says that people are increasingly opting to communicate with folks via texting and other technologies, a tendency that she writes in her book "has made each of us 'pauseable.'" She told silicon.com:
We don't realize the attention we give our devices. When you're reading your emails, you are simply not available in the same way - you're in a different world.
I couldn't agree more. I dug into our archives to find a post I wrote three years ago, in which I shared an article that detailed how several companies had banned laptops from meetings because they found folks were more focused on the machines than the people around them.
I read an article recently (sorry, no link) in which an iPad user insisted the device was far better for meetings than a laptop because the absence of a lid allowed him to maintain more eye contact with colleagues. Maybe. But it still presents the temptation to check email or other applications unrelated to the events at hand. (And yes, I realize people can withdraw even without technology. Witness all of the legal pads filled with doodles done during meetings.)
But I do worry that folks are using technology to avoid dealing with the sometimes uncomfortable issues that can arise during face-to-face interaction with other people. (Sure, plenty of online situations can get awkward but it's generally easier to deal with them - often by just ignoring them.) Turkle makes this point by noting young people sometimes choose to focus on their devices while surrounded by a roomful of people. She foresees a generation of young people entering the work force uncomfortable with personal communication. Turkle says:
You have to be able to not feel that you have to hide from people to be successful in most fields of endeavor.