Competing for Attention

I wonder at how the way people interact with one another will change as computers and mobile devices become more integrated into our society.

I was recently listening to the frustrations of a group of people discussing computers in the classroom. One of the people was, it seemed, moving slowly towards supporting the idea. He spoke about being annoyed by having students on the computer during the class and assumed they were socializing rather than listening and learning. But he was also able to present examples of targeting particular students, assuming they were more engaged with the computer than with the class and was surprised to find they were simply looking up additional information to support that particular lecture.

So this got me thinking.

Being someone who is able to type one thing while holding a conversation about another, I often find myself talking to people while looking at the computer. Even after telling them I’m listening and giving responses that clearly show that we’re having a conversation, I still feel like this throws people off. It seems while we’re constantly engaged with our various devices during social interactions only some of these combined interactions (human-computer-human) are actually socialized.

The mobile phone replaces the cigarette

It’s so common we don’t even think about it much. People sitting together at a dinner or standing around at a bar. There’s a lull in the conversation. That din of chatter suddenly subsides as people finish one conversation and try to figure out if there’s more. they need time to think or shift or just get away from that loser they’re stuck next to. Out comes the cigarettes. Or would come out if this was 20 years ago and everyone smoked. Now, it’s out comes the mobile. People check email, reply to texts or just see what time it is. It only takes a minute or two but it has replaced another, different type of social interaction, smoking together. Luckily this is a lot safer for everyone (my voice is still rough from the smoke-filled club I was at last night so this is very pertinent). But what I find interesting is both how quickly it became socialized (to the point that it’s not in some places) and how amazed people are that it is. Checking the phone is really, no matter what excuse you give, a nervous action. That lull in the conversation throws people off and they need to fill it. Smoking used to allow a segue using a non-verbal conversation. Mobiles maybe allow further connection to people who are talking or just a chance to get perspective for a moment. Define our space, make sure everything is in it’s right place, etc. Now, I’d love to take credit for this idea but it was also part of the conversation I mentioned earlier. I just thought it was a great idea.

And here’s where I’m amazed by it. Pulling out the mobile is a socialized action, meaning that we as a collective society understand that it’s going to happen. We may not see it as 100% ok but it’s “normal”. Non-socialized action would be that in the same lull in conversation I were to pull out my laptop and start plugging away at it. But in other situations, where discretion is less important, such as a class or a business meeting, the laptop is still seen as an odd addition. And that’s just weird.

I’ve used a laptop during meetings early in my career and each time it was assumed that I was not doing work related to that meeting. Even after delivering information that clearly showed I was. And I think it’s because of two things. First, the other people cannot see my screen and can’t know for certain what I’m doing. Second, I’m not looking at them and validating the conversation regularly with eye contact. So the whole thing gets thrown off. I don’t take my computer to meetings anymore. I take a pad of paper and write down notes and action items throughout the meeting. It’s the only time I use a pen and paper in my life but the client can see my “screen” and knows I’m actively in the conversation. But selfishly, I really wish that taking the laptop was socialized. It’s several extra steps to go back and transcribe my notes (since I don’t write much my handwriting is illegible even to me) and then add whatever action items to my online task list. But the real downfall is that I can’t search for new information during the meeting. As a matter of fact, no one can because we’re all avoiding the laptop. It would be great to bring search into the meeting and be able to support the conversation with information quickly.

Anyway, rant over. It’s not a big deal. I just find it interesting when it’s ok to connect and when it’s not. Guess we’ll have to wait till we have brain implants or something so then no one can see our screens. :)