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Info tech and attention deficit ... whatever

At a recent conference I attended in Halifax, the organizers came up with a way of distributing their conference program that was novel, but very ill-advised: They gave all the attendees Apple iPods with the program installed as a mobile application, with

At a recent conference I attended in Halifax, the organizers came up with a way of distributing their conference program that was novel, but very ill-advised: They gave all the attendees Apple iPods with the program installed as a mobile application, with the proviso that you had to return the iPod intact at the end of the conference.

This conference was about urban energy planning and civic sustainability, not about information technology - and the organizers were showing their lack of info-tech savvy on a number of fronts.

First, with upwards of a hundred iPods all hammering on the same wireless access point at the same time, the Westin Nova Scotian hotel’s free internet service in the conference rooms was pretty much gutted.

Second, the conference’s program was not complicated or crowded enough to justify putting it into digital format.

Third, a fair number of the more techno-innocent attendees were spooked by the prospect or having to pay for the iPod if it got lost or stolen (these were 8 GB iPods, valued at $249), so they ended up leaving the things in their hotel rooms, making do without any program at all.

Fourth, and most seriously, they were providing the more techy-minded in the crowd with yet another distraction from the conference presentations.

I think I am hardly alone in my concern with the increasing incidence of bad techno-manners at conference sessions, as more and more people adopt and then over-use all the new mobile computing technologies - netbooks, iPads and cellphones that have now really become computers that make phone calls.

It is a phenomenon I have seen burgeoning over my past half dozen years of conferencing, and it has by now reached proportions that are just downright distracting and annoying.

In the earlier days of the luggable, not carry-able laptop computer, it was not uncommon to see a few people with a working laptop in front of them, tapping away discretely as the presenter ran through its inevitable Power Point slides.

Generally, though, these people were taking notes, not doing any internet activity, since wireless connectivity was not so commonplace in those days.

Now, though, with Wi-Fi laid on like water services just about everywhere, and cellular service pretty much always on call, more and more conference attendees are falling victim to digital attention deficit disorder and unmannerly hyperactivity.

At the Halifax conference, for instance, I saw at least two individuals - one an academic, one a brash product-huckster type - who passed virtually all their time in front of their laptops, even stringing their power cords across the floor from sockets, indifferent to the potential tripping risk they were creating.

The huckster fellow was particularly distracting and annoying, partly because he was closer to me than the academic, and partly because he was blithely using some sort of software that let off dings and warbles at unpredictable intervals.

Given that the attendance fee at this conference was in excess of a thousand dollars, and that travel costs to Halifax are non-trivial, I had to wonder just what return on the dollar the academic’s university or the huckster’s company were actually getting for their investment.

But those two were only the most flagrant offenders. I saw any number of other people passing long periods of time twiddling away at their BlackBerries or iPhones, and still others, new to this portable computing game, playing around on the internet with their complementary iPods.

Neither can I make claims to absolute behavioral purity at the event. I confess I did, in some of the more arid stretches of some presentations, succumb to my digital addiction and check my e-mail, even dashing off a short response or two.

For the most part, though, I try to make it a practice to turn of my cellphone and iPod when I am at a conference session, in deference to the time the speaker has put in on his or her presentation, and in expectation that I may stand to gain some meaningful new information from that effort. I save my texting and web checking for the intervals between those presentations.

But in those networking breaks, too, the new technology of mobile computing is downgrading the value of conference attendance.

More and more, people are using this networking time not to network with the people around them - and those chance or planned meetings are often the real return on investment at such events - but with friends, family or co-workers on the internet.

To say that my time at the Halifax conference was rendered valueless by all this techno-hyperactivity would be to exaggerate: I got some very useful information about a construction project currently going on at UBC, and I rubbed shoulders with an interesting fellow from Dawson Creek with whom I could share interesting ideas about things like composting issues in small northern communities.

On the whole, though, I think conference organizers in the near future are going to have to start establishing some ground rules about appropriate and inappropriate use of communication devices at conference sessions.

Telling people to put their cells on vibrate really does not address the problem of digitally induced attention deficit disorder.

And, certainly, putting a gift iPod into their hands is the ultimate example of the wrong thing to do.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.