U R Not Listening

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U R not listening

The Boston Globe November 6, 2006

ANYBODY WHO addresses a boardroom or a lecture hall these days is asking for disappointment, for a glance out over the typical audience reveals a frenzy of e-mailing and text-messaging. People pretend to pay attention. All the while, they're pecking at their BlackBerrys, trying but failing to be discreet.

Busy professionals are the worst offenders. Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and sociologist who studies how people relate to technology, describes a conference she attended in a remote part of Japan. "It was grueling to get there," she says. Yet for all the trouble participants took to meet up , many spent the session fiddling with their handhelds.

Watching people thumb away, one wonders: What are they doing ? Buying stocks? Making snarky comments about what others are wearing? Trading electronic mash notes -- "i think about u 24-7 " -- with secret paramours thousands of miles away ?

There is a mitigating factor: Often , the podium jockey who's being tuned out is showing a PowerPoint presentation -- and reading from slide after interminable slide. Those who hoped to influence a roomful of people used to try to be interesting . Not anymore; there are too many bullet points to project on the wall. Maybe audiences should be polite enough to sit there glassy-eyed and slackjawed, but they don't.

So a battle is underway: PowerPoint vs. BlackBerry. This is the Iran-Iraq war of passive aggression -- whom to root for? In this same circle of hell, the Yankees play the Lakers for all eternity, and condemned Bostonians are required to choose sides.

In truth, surreptitious text-messaging is just an outgrowth of several social trends, none of them good. People work too hard . They get dragooned into attending events they'd prefer to avoid. And, as Turkle points out, people like the feeling of control that comes with experiencing life onscreen. "It's not just during boring PowerPoints," she says. "Increasingly, people define their media bubble as being their primary community."

In theory, BlackBerrys bring people together, just as presentation software gets ideas across clearly. But people can do both the analog way -- by actually talking to each other. In practice, certain so-called advances merely let us have unsatisfying interactions with multiple people at the same time.

No thanks. Overscheduled Americans need to play hooky from PowerPoint, put down the handhelds, and enjoy life off the grid. Let's all text-message ourselves: u need 2 relax.

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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Monty Solomon
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