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High-Tech Times Article 032

The New Etiquette of Technology

Welcome back to the High-Tech Times. Despite dire warnings from my high school teachers that I needed a lot of practice on my public speaking, today I give speeches - lots of speeches. I guess it helps that I enjoy technology and what it can do for my clients. But that same technology can cause some interesting new etiquette problems.

At a talk I gave a few weeks ago, I walked into the meeting room a bit early, as usual, to do my standard check of the podium, audio-visual equipment, and other necessities. Pleasantly surprised to find everything in order for a change, I sat down and began reading the newspaper. A few minutes later, a man walked in and settled himself into the seat in front of me. He immediately took out his cell phone and made a call.
He quickly became quite agitated, and his voice grew increasingly louder. Frankly, I found his carrying-on to be quite distracting, and glanced around to see the reaction of the others who were filling up the room. No one seemed to notice, and, in fact, I noted that quite a few other people were using their own phones -- not an unusual scene in today’s connected world.
I started the meeting a few minutes later, with a computer-based presentation containing a few rather loud audio clips. My former seat-mate continued his conversation, raising his voice to be heard over the sound-track, but finally ended his call in obvious frustration. After my introduction, I noted that quite a number of attendees had powered up their laptop computers, judging from the not-very-muted tones of the Windows startup tones.
These sounds were becoming more than slightly distracting, and I requested that all pagers and cell phones be silenced. To reinforce this, I removed my own pager and phone, and placed them in my briefcase. This got a bit of a laugh, and for a few minutes the room was relatively silent; the muted clicking of laptop keys notwithstanding.
Then the first pager went off, followed immediately by two phones. As these three attendees happened to be in the front row, I rather pointed smiled at them, and waited a moment for what I expected would be the powering down of the noise-makers. One lady looked at the beeper at her waist, frowned, and went back to listening to me, leaving her beeper to play Fur Elise. The second lady appeared rather put-out, but made an obvious effort to turn off her cell phone and put it in her purse. The man picked up his phone, and proceeded to start an animated conversation....
The rest of the session was accented every so often  - too often - by the tones of various electronic gadgets. In the first two rows alone, I counted 11 laptops, 17 phones, eight Palm Pilots (or equivalents), and a rather remarkable-looking guy who was wearing what appeared to be a cross between a Buck Rogers helmet and a Borg faceplate. And I didn’t even want to guess how many pagers, voice-activated recorders, and other techno-gadgets were present!
During the break, I began musing on the amount of radiation zapping around and through us to power all these toys, and found myself getting a bit depressed: first because it was obvious that most of the 150 people in that room were incapable of mastering the technical skills to change the operating mode of these devices to vibrate; second because many of the attendees didn’t care whether they were bothering anyone else; and third because virtually everyone had to stay connected!
I think it was the poet John Donne who wrote, “No man is an island.” And although I still consider that to be an insightful statement, I’m not sure that Mr. Donne would quite recognize today just how far we have taken his observation. Humans are social animals and require interaction with others, but we sure seem to be developing behavioral patterns that border on complete rudeness.
I’m not sure that I understand these patterns. Are we trying to do too much, and are willing to risk irritating others in the pursuit of using every single second of every single day? Or are we so insecure that we can’t stand to be “out of the loop” even for a few moments? Or do we just feel we’re so important that we can do whatever we want whenever we want? 
I’ll admit that in my industry, I don’t have anywhere nearly as much face-to-face interaction with other people as I did when I got my first engineering degree a few decades ago. In fact, the other day I found myself e-mailing my wife in her upstairs office from my downstairs office....
What are my conclusions? It doesn’t really matter. You see, society is changing, we’re all losing touch with what used to be “normal” behavior, and we’re busily developing new habits and patterns, for better or for worse. In fact, it may actually be a good thing that more and more people are telecommuting from home and on the road: after all, I watched 150 people acting like there was no one else except them, even in a crowded meeting room.
Do you see yourself anywhere in here? See you next month.