There was this big conference that was introduced by the chairman in this way: ‘Welcome everybody. Lovely to have you all here; now we can all look at our screens together’. There was a time when people took notes in conferences, now people tweet whilst ‘listening’. Why? Because they can.
It’s quite normal now in some conferences to have a twitter feed on a large screen next to the main presentation so people can see and read in ‘real time’ the instant reaction of the audience to what the presenter is saying. Why do we do this? Because we can.
In smaller meetings, it used to be considered rude to have your laptop on and do emails whilst somebody was presenting. It was rude, but tolerated. Now there are less laptops on the table, but people are looking down at their blackberries and smartphones. ‘Homo Erectus’ is being replaced by ‘Homo Thumbing‘, which is an illuminated Homo-Looking-Down.
I have run client meetings with apocalyptic warnings against doing this and descriptions upfront of the consequences (from being put on spot by me, including CEOs, to paying a nominal fine to buy the beers in the evening). Everybody complies at the beginning. By the end of the first day, trespassers are apparent. By the second day, everybody ignores the warning and looks down again, thumbing with an apparent vengeance.
There is an issue here of etiquette, politeness and respect that is big enough. But even bigger is the issue of busy-ness and the apparent inevitability of answering a trivial message on the spot. Our hyper-connected world has given us enormous possibilities but also a new Ego Archetype that reads like this: ‘What we say, surely, must be incredibly important for many people; to say it immediately is paramount, and if we don’t live in instant reaction mode, instant thinking, instant presence, instant action, (perhaps not instant coffee), there is something wrong with us’. Why do we react and reply to the command of a beep of the smartphone? Because we can.
Human interaction is being digitally re-defined every single day in millions of places. I don’t have a good answer but my question is: What are we, human beings, losing? I know it may be a naive question but ‘the new normal’ bothers me.