Berrybites, and reality bites

Patrick, in comments to my early post about the effects of blackberries and other push e-mail devices, recounts his experience of a meeting where nine out of ten of the people present – well – weren’t:

“They would look up upon hearing a word they find interesting, then went right back into their text-messaging. Then during Q&A, one guy asked three questions in rapid succession (all of which pertained to topics we had already discussed in our presentation), then promptly went back to typing in his SK. After answering his questions in rather lengthy detail, the presenter (our Exec Creative Director) asked him whether or not we’ve addressed his concerns, he replied: “uh, more or less.” never once loosened his grip on his opium pipe.”

Was talking with Foe about this again tonight, and realised that of course, I have done the equivalent of this in meeting rooms that have wifi – checking my email, or attending to some other work, while being copresent, but not really concentrating on the content of the meeting. Is is again the effect of the tools? Having ‘prescence’ in buddy lists means you are available for chat or queries to others. Do we now think that it is enough to be ‘present’ in reality – available, but not concentrating – awaiting a call to participate rather than participating by default? Would we be more productive or creative and less stressed if we opted out of one ‘buddy list’ of prescence – perhaps even sometimes the physical prescence. Just be honest and say – “You know what? I shouldn’t be here if I’m not concentrating on this.”

I know that Joi Ito has written a lot about his thoughts on “m-time and p-time” before now – I really should go back and read it more thoroughly.

All of this thinking about berrybites and the technologies that create constant partial attention put me to mind of the first time I heard the phrase, on Neal Stephenson’s well page – and how much of the communication technology we think essential to productivity is nothing of the sort:

“Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe life in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, cellphones, and other distractions. This curious feature of modern life poses a problem for a someone like me. Every productive thing that I do requires ALL my attention.

I cannot put it any better than Donald Knuth, who writes on his website, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. ”

Knuth also provides the following quote from Umberto Eco: “I don’t even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.”

One other thought – form factor.

Different form factors set up different spaces of interaction and particpation around them. Handhelds and laptops, while seeming quite different in form-factor – both create ‘private’ spaces for different reasons (size for handhelds, lids for laptops) which have similar impacts on the feeling of the social space around them.

I wonder what meetings feel like if the particpants are still connected but using devices with form-factors that create ‘semi-private/semi-public’ interaction spaces around them, e.g. tablet PCs. Does anyone have first-hand experience?