laptopaudienceIf the past is a foreign country, how much more so the future.  There have been endless articles – to say nothing of entire books – about the digital generation, but few of them in my experience really bring the differences to life.  I was struck by a piece danah boyd has just written which brings it home much more clearly than most other things I have read, partly perhaps because the context is such a familiar one

Blackberries and laptops are often frowned upon as distraction devices. As a result, few of my colleagues are in the habit of creating backchannels in business meetings. This drives me absolutely bonkers, especially when we’re talking about conference calls. I desperately, desperately want my colleagues to be on IM or IRC or some channel of real-time conversation during meetings. While I will fully admit that there are times when the only thing I have to contribute to such dialogue is snark, there are many more times when I really want clarifications, a quick question answered, or the ability to ask someone in the room to put the mic closer to the speaker without interrupting the speaker in the process …

I’m 31 years old. I’ve been online since I was a teen. I’ve grown up with this medium and I embrace each new device that brings me closer to being a cyborg. I want information at my fingertips now and always. There’s no doubt that I’m not mainstream. But I also feel really badly for the info-driven teens and college students out there being told that learning can only happen when they pay attention to an audio-driven lecture in a classroom setting. I read books during my classroom (blatantly not paying attention). Imagine what would’ve happened had I been welcome to let my mind run wild on the topic at hand?

What will it take for us to see technology as a tool for information enhancement? At the very least, how can we embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts? How I long for being connected to be an acceptable part of engagement.

There is a pleasing irony in all that having been prompted by being at a conference called, of all things, Modernity 2.0:

At one point, after a talk, one of the sociocybernetics scholars (actually, the former President of the sociocybernetics organization… I know… I looked him up) began his question by highlight that, unlike most of the audience who seemed more invested in the internet than scholarly conversations, HE had been paying attention. He was sitting next to me. He looked at me as he said this.

It’s not very often that I feel like I’ve been publicly bitchslapped but boy did that sting. And then I felt pissy, like a resentful stubborn child bent on proving him wrong. Somehow, as I grew my hair out and became an adult, I also became less spiteful because boy was I determined to bite back. Of course, I haven’t become that much of an adult because here I am blogging the details of said encounter.

There’s no doubt that I barely understood what the speaker was talking about. But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own.

But, of course, the attack was not actually about the reality of my internet habits but the perception of them.

As she freely admits, danah boyd is something of an edge case.  Most people aren’t like that, most 31-year olds are not like that and, I suspect, not even most 21-year olds are quite like that.  But it’s a fair bet that many more people are going to become much more like that, and it’s a further reason why mono-directional, mono-vocal channels (which is still a reasonable approximation of what government does – many other organisations too) will have to change.

And perhaps her thoughts resonate more strongly for me because of two personal reflections.  One is that, many years ago, Mrs Strategist returned from speaking at a conference in Italy slightly bemused by many in the audience taking and making mobile phone calls during sessions without the merest gesture of apology.  The cultural acceptability of interruptions is not a straightforward thing.

The second is my own experience over the last few weeks, starting at an event which was the tipping point for me, where it became apparent that there were interesting conversations during and about the event which I was not part of.   That got me on to Twitter, and that in turn has created the opportunity to experiment with back channel conversation.  Endless layers of self-referentiality beckon – but the power is real.

Slightly less narcissistically, there are also implications for the government toolkit.  IE6 and blocked access aren’t going to help anybody navigate the new possibilities.  But that’s a matter for what might be the next post.