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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Maria Metzen off the start line of the Yukon Dog Mushers Association’s sled dog race on Jan. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Mushers race in preparation for FirstMate Babe Southwick

The annual race is set for Feb. 12 and 13.

The Yukon government is making changes to the medical travel system, including doubling the per diem and making destinations for medical services more flexible. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Subsidy for medical travel doubled with more supports coming

The change was recommended in the Putting People First report endorsed by the government

Chloe Sergerie, who was fined $500 under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> on Jan. 12, says she made the safest choice available to her when she entered the territory. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Woman fined $500 under CEMA says she made ‘safest decision’ available

Filling out a declaration at the airport was contrary to self-isolation, says accused

The Yukon Department of Education building in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. Advocates are calling on the Department of Education to reverse their redefinition of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that led to 138 students losing the program this year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Advocates call redefinition of IEPs “hugely concerning,” call for reversal

At least 138 students were moved off the learning plans this year

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21, 2020. Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive up to $20,000 to help recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Details released on relief funding for tourism and culture non-profits

Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive… Continue reading

Most Read