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It's time for a 'Law of Digital Etiquette'

October 24, 2012
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"No electronic devices allowed!” I was at a large government-sponsored session for technologists, and the intent of the registration desk sign was unmistakable. They were trying to keep us from our cell phones and tablets!

I couldn't help but chuckle at the sign and think, "Good luck". Somehow, the conference organizers had overlooked both the accepted "device-friendly" etiquette at other tech conferences and the reality that they were hosting a conference for a tech-oriented crowd in 2012. They would have had as much likelihood of success with a "No breathing allowed" sign.

I took a bit of voyeuristic pleasure listening to an attendee challenge the registration clerk behind the desk. "You can't mean this!" he huffed. A lively conversation ensued as the clerk insisted that, indeed, they meant it and outlined how rude the use of electronic devices is to speakers. I was witnessing a clash of tech cultures unfold! 

Soon the conference was in full swing. One of the event organizers stepped forward to share thoughts on new initiatives. As is common at other tech conferences, all around me, attendees in the audience pulled out smartphones to snap pictures of the speaker’s slides. Audience members fired up tablets and carried out on-the-spot Google searches on the various websites the speaker referenced. And fingers were flying recording observations into a sea of tablets and laptops. Either the organizers had chosen to ignore their self-imposed rule or they were oblivious to the mutiny occurring all around them!

Eventually, the speaker wrapped his presentation and strode purposefully to the back of the auditorium. As he took the seat next to mine I saw his eyes dart around, studying the audience. Perhaps, I thought, he now realized the vast digital revolt. Would he leave the auditorium in disgust? Wrench devices out of the hands of attendees?

Instead, as the next speaker began her remarks, a rather remarkable behavior transpired. He simply pulled out his iPhone and began touching non-stop for the next 30 minutes. Even the event organizers couldn’t stick to their rule!

We live in the age of transition when all around us such battles unfold. I witnessed a similar event at a college discussion panel when a professor described how he does not allow students to use electronic devices in his lecture hall setting. A student in attendance spoke up in counterpoint:  "But that is the way my generation lives! And the way the world is! You are not helping us by forcing us to into your artificial world for an hour!"   

I once stumbled into the role of the rule-making curmudgeon myself -- even as (in my own mind) a progressive tech advocate. I announced at a long-ago company meeting, as CEO of a fast moving tech company, my own “no-device-in-meetings” mandate. It went over about as well as the mandate at the recent symposium. I hastily retracted my ruling a couple meetings later when I realized how stifling it was to my creative and modern-thinking workforce.

There is a lot of deep pro and con analysis that can go into this issue, but it really nets into a few key areas I view as my Law of Digital Etiquette.

Many situations remain device inappropriate

Etiquette still dictates full focus with no digital apparatus in sight for many situations. These include any kind of serious, person-to-person discussion, small-group settings, any kind of client-concerns-type discussion and many social situations.

Industry matters

The etiquette expectations and informal code vary by industry. That is why the recent conference, which melded two very different cultures of “tech” and “government” had expectation contrasts. Be aware of your surroundings in your use of digital, as all industries are converging towards digital-device acceptance at their own pace.

Rude is never right

The perception of rude has softened due to digital technology but still must be coupled with a timeless dose of common sense. It is generally not rude, in 2012, to have a digital device at hand when you attend a large lecture and to look at it occasionally. It is rude to never look up at the speaker, to chuckle from the audience based on text-message exchanges of insider jokes or type like a mad fiend without showing body language queues that you are also engaged in the meeting. Digital connectedness shifts how we engage, but it doesn’t eliminate the human principals of communications like eye contact and body-language signals that are a part of the intangible interplay between speaker and in-person audiences.

Understand the way the mind absorbs information

Research has shown for decades that the ability of the human mind to focus on and absorb information is remarkably low. In a typical one-hour lecture, it is estimated that only 20 percent to 40 percent of the content settles home with the audience. A speaker in 1985 likely never guessed that half of the audience was multitasking and “mentally surfing” at any point in the lecture. The blank faces gave the illusion of rapt attention. 

The speaker of 2012 may observe a sea of faces looking at their digital devices during the speech and make the opposite assumption that the audience is tuning out. To the contrary, if they are tweeting, Google fact checking or digitally annotating the speech, many of the attendees may be boosting the impact and memory retention of the speech to record levels.

In a couple decades, the act of absorbing information will be digitally driven and more effective. Based on predictions from futurists, many will absorb speeches with “augmented reality learning facilitator” eyeglasses. These will unobtrusively feed us a steady flow of digital information to supplement the speaker’s words and allow us to fact check, tweet and highlight key portions with a twitch of our fingers or thoughts. The culture clashes of our current transition era will be in the past, and we’re unlikely to see registration desks signs that state “No learning allowed.”

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