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High Tech, Low Touch? Offline at eTech

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If you’ve been following any of the technology or social software bloggers you probably have seen quite a few posts about O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology (Etech) conference held this week in San Diego at the Westin Horton Plaza. Part of me wanted to attend this conference while another part spoke to me: “you’re too travelled and conferenced out, Allan.” So I opted for a quick shuffle in and a quick shuffle out.

Why? Mostly, I wanted to spend some offline time with fellow blogger, professor, librarian and friend Liz Lawley. I also figured I check out the vibe of the conference and get a little taste of the dynamic of the crowd that I suspected would gather in the hotel lobby. Perhaps I’d bump into some of my fellow bloggers like Joi, Doc, Kevin or others.

I walked into the lobby of the Westin and there was no question to me or anyone who walked through the doors that there was “technology going on.” The first image I caught was a man in his 30′s slouched in a lobby chair, feet on the coffee table in front of him with his Apple PowerBook perched on his thighs. He was eagerly pecking away at his keyboard. I stopped. Blatantly. Stared. And walked on. Didn’t notice me.

Next I sauntered into the lobby bar. It was a few minutes before six and several sessions were still in progress, yet all of the tables were occupied by small groups. There were several seats open at the bar. At the opposite end of the bar sat an attractive women in her late twenties. She was flanked by two gentlemen and in front of her open and glaring was her Titanium PowerBook. I spun in my stool and glanced over the room. I saw Dan Gillmor at a table of 4 or 5 people with at least one or two of them with their heads buried into laptop computers. In the corner was a heavyset man sitting in the middle of a sofa, alone with huge headphones on his head and his laptop reflecting and glowing in his eyeglasses. Marc Canter zoomed in, scanned the room and quickly exited. I counted the Apples: totaled 5, 4 PowerBooks and an iBook. I counted the nondescripts: 4. That’s 9 computers in a lounge that sat about 20-25 people. All but the man with the headphones were sitting in groups.

Feeling alienated from a glowing LCD screen I grabbed my new Sony Ericsson P900, poked and pecked at the screen with the stylus and eagerly checked my SMS, MMS and e-mail messages. Geeeeeeeeez. Even the bartender seemed afraid to communicate. Was the vibe and power consumption of emerging technology enhancing or disrupting communication in the lobby?

To be fair, had I been in possession of my PowerBook I might have propped it up on the bar and avoided all communication and eye contact with the bartender. MAybe not. Yet conferences are designed not only as a informational and educational forums, but they’re also very important networking and face-to-face gatherings. That’s why I made the trip to San Diego. I wanted to spend time talking face to face with Liz. We could share ideas, stories, laughs and more. We could establish eye contact, see expressions and enjoy time offline — without email, iChat, IRC or Google.

At dinner Liz shared with me an experience she had in an e-tech breakout BOF session. She walked into a room where a group of people were ideally sharing ideas, getting to know each other and engaging in discussions. Yet she walked into a room full of people with their heads buried into their laptops on IRC, email or IM. As Liz explained it to me, it struck her as odd.

So while technology emerges and those passionate about topics discussed at this conference or others I wonder if interpersonal communication is devolving to the tools of technology regardless of physical presence? Will eye contact, body language and tactile or sensual experiences such as handshakes, hugs and tongue in cheek jabs on shoulders disappear? Or can we learn to balance our lives without compromising technology or our ability to communicate and experience the real (dare I say) off line world?

No matter what I write, or what channel I chat on, or how good of a digital photo I can take, nothing can explain the flavors and texture of the crisp layer and creamy delicious custard and tangy raspberry of the creme brulee we shared after dinner. Only in the real world can you taste that.

———-

Truthfully, I am very interested in a number of things discussed at Etech this year including Disney’s use of blogs and RSS. Check out many of the bloggers reporting on or from the conference here.

Photos: After dinner I returned briefly to the lobby of the Westin. Attendees still huddled over computer screens while “engaged?” in conversations. These photos were shot at about 10:15pm about 4 hours after my initial observations as discussed above.

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