(Editor’s note: While writing this feature for the magazine, senior editor Wade Roush added notes to the story. He also solicited reader feedback, which was incorporated here. Throughout the article, readers can mouse over the bold text to see what early readers contributed. If you are unable to click on the link in the contribution, simply click on the bolded word in the article, which will take you to the appropriate page.)
My boss, Jason Pontin, caused a minor ruckus in May while attending D3, the Wall Street Journal’s third annual “All Things Digital” conference outside San Diego. The editor in chief of Technology Review, like many executives, entrepreneurs, engineers, and students these days, doesn’t go anywhere without his wireless gear – meaning, at a minimum, a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop and a cell phone. At D3, Jason was using his laptop to file blog (or Web log) posts “live” from the conference floor, summarizing talks by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, and other computer-industry celebrities. But on the third day, he couldn’t find a signal. The Wi-Fi network he’d been accessing was on by mistake, a conference staffer told him. She explained that the hosts of the conference – Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, two of the Journal’s technology writers – had decided that no one should have Internet access from the main ballroom.
Jason, naturally, wrote a new blog post about the incident (from the hallway this time). Forbidding live blogging at a technology conference, he remarked, “seems a very retrograde move.” Mossberg responded hours later. “It is untrue that Kara and I banned live blogging at D3, from the ballroom or anywhere else,” he explained. “We merely declined to provide Wi-Fi, to avoid the common phenomenon that has ruined too many tech conferences – near universal checking of e-mail and surfing of the Web during the program.”
Other bloggers, including me, soon pounced on the minicontroversy. Some commended Mossberg’s decision and warned against the perils of “continuous partial attention,”
Continuous partial attention: A phrase coined by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft vice president and a widely respected authority on human-computer interfaces.
the state of mental blurriness thought to be induced when information is constantly pouring in from multiple sources. Others extolled the social benefits of “always on” connectivity. “During conferences the back channel can and does enhance the fore channel, especially if I’m able to look up information that would be too tedious, basic, or digressive to ask about during a Q&A,” wrote Gardner Campbell, an assistant vice president for teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. “I can also share the experience, and be newly energized, by being in touch with staff and friends and family who are not able to attend with me.”
Both sides had a point. But the most telling thing about the debate was that it happened at all. Without much hoopla, many conference centers and university and corporate campuses – even entire metropolises, in the case of Philadelphia and a few other cities – are being turned into giant Wi-Fi hot spots. Trains, planes, airports, and libraries are also installing wireless networks to serve customers carrying wireless gadgets. As a result, many businesspeople, students, and Starbucks addicts now expect cheap, easy access to the Internet as a matter of course. Losing it can feel like being stranded.
Constant connectivity has changed what it means to participate in a conference or any other gathering. Using chat rooms, blogs, wikis,
Wikis: Web pages that allow users to add content or edit existing content.
photo-sharing sites, and other technologies, people at real-world meetings can now tap into an electronic swirl of commentary and interpretation by other participants – the “back channel” mentioned by Campbell. There are trade-offs: this new information stream can indeed draw attention away from the here and now. But many people seem willing to make them, pleased by the productivity they gain in circumstances where they’d otherwise be cut off from their offices or homes. There is meaning in all of this. After a decade of hype about “mobility,” personal computing has finally and irreversibly cut its bonds to the desktop and has moved into devices we can carry everywhere. We’re using this newly portable computing power to connect with others in ways no one predicted – and we won’t be easily parted from our new tools.