Let's All Be Alone, Together

I had the great joy today of having one of those long, thought-provoking talks with a really smart friend (waving at you, @joaneisenstodt!) who got me thinking about, among a million other things, just how smartphones and tablets are changing meetings. I mean fundamentally changing them, not just doing an old function in a new way with really cool bells and whistles, like what happened when we replaced overheads and slide projectors with PowerPoints and multimedia projectors.

But smartphones and tablets do something a bit different in that they both bring to the meeting people who aren't physically present, and take people who are physically present out of the meeting. Those hallway conversations in between sessions that everyone always says are the best part of a meeting? These days people hustle out of the session room just as quickly, but more often than not it's to have a confab with their devices, not the people around them (who also are grabbing for their smartphones as soon as they hit the threshold). The iPhone prayer posture has become so ubiquitous that there were too many hallway collisions and near-misses at the last conference I attended to count, and text-neck is right up there with sore feet as a trade show injury staple.

So many people interacting with so many people who are at the meeting only by virtue of a small, hand-held screen; so many others experiencing the meeting from hundreds of miles away only by virtue of that same small, hand-held screen. It's really pretty remarkable when you think about it.

As my friend pointed out, many meeting organizers are trying to harness our new(ish) i-obsession with things like gamification, which takes our natural affinity for our devices and uses it to further the meeting's goals. And trust me, I'm the first one to jump on that trend, being the ridiculously competitive and answer-seeking critter than I am. There's nothing like a well-structured app game to get people to visit booths at the expo, seek out answers to the questions the meeting is being held to explore, and overall help achieve what everyone is there to achieve. And there are all the meetings apps now that can help people explore the profiles of other attendees, arrange meetings, and even let people know when someone who shares an interest is nearby.

But it still feels like, though we're gaining a lot, something also is being lost, kind of like when kids spend all their time in structured sports activities and lessons instead of having a pickup game of foursquare (back when foursquare was a game, not an app!) or softball, or just hanging out and being bored enough to make up games of their own. Sure, their soccer skills will improve, and they'll likely get pretty tight with their teammates, but I still think both kids and adults need the temporal version of white space they can fill with serendipidous connections and "found" knowledge that shows up in a place and form we least expect it.

Do we need to have that structure, a formal game or other incentive ("Whoever tweets most to our hashtag wins an iPad Mini!") to keep the i-interaction focused on the meeting instead of e-mail checking and other Internet activities that have nothing to do with the meeting? Or develop new technology that enables presenters to "lock down" attendees' screens so they have to pay attention? Or create learning zones where, in a silent room, people are listening via headphones to different topics, similar to how some discos have gone silent lately? (I could swear I read something recently about this happening at meetings, but I can't find it right now.)

I think we may, because otherwise our increasingly work-connected lives leave us no choice but to plug in and turn our attention elsewhere. And that's OK—or just today's reality, anyway—but it may cost us some of those freewheeling synchronicities that happen when people bump and mingle, connect and disconnect, form and reform patterns of face-to-face interactions in those hallway conversations, meals together, and other free times.

Before I get too nostalgic and kids-these-days (kids being us meeting-goers, whatever our actual ages), on the plus side are all the new online synchronicities and serendipidous e-interactions that now can take place. I have met more people who are not in the room than who are present at some meetings I've been to lately, and had at times better conversations with non-present attendees than those I did bump into in the hallways and sit with at lunch. Which can be both a blessing and a crutch for those of us who are on the less outgoing side of the scale.

But the more I wrestle with whether this trend is good or bad, the more I realize that, like with most new things, we'll see plenty of both as we go about the process of virtualizing the real world and realizing the virtual one. Instead of putting a value judgment on it, it's probably more important to just acknowledge what is, and try to find ways to build the potential for what and how we want our meetings to be. Some may be greatly enhanced by providing unstructured free time where people can interact physically or online however they see fit, others may be better off structuring the nature of the on- and offline time people have. Others may want to confiscate smartphones at the door (yeah, good luck with that) and force people to interact only with those in the room. I haven't heard of it happening, but it's conceivable that there's a meeting somewhere where people are supposed to only interact with those not in the room. I'm old enough to find that idea bizarre, but also interesting!

While this is all still new enough that we're playing with all the permutations of what it all means to meetings, I expect the virtual experience of those present and not is only going to continue to intensify as our technology becomes ever-more integrated into every aspect of our daily lives. But, as someone who grew up voraciously reading Isaac Asimov science fiction stories, I can't help wondering if someday we won't find ourselves in a meetings version of a story he wrote that to this day sticks with me called The Feeling of Power, where we get so used to technology doing things for us that we forget what we can do without it, for good or ill.

As great as technology can be, we have to remember that it's just a tool—our tool. The real value is in our brains and our interactions and our relationships, whether we develop and express them onscreen or off.


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