The Outrage of a Fading World

Science, technology, and life.
June 24 2009 10:03 AM

The Outrage of a Fading World

Is it rude to focus on your smartphone during meetings?

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It's way more than that. It's another sign that the virtual world is overtaking the physical world.

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Here are the evolving facts on the ground, so to speak, as presented by Alex Williams in Monday's New York Times :

The phone use has become routine in the corporate and political worlds—and grating to many. A third of more than 5,300 workers polled in May by Yahoo HotJobs, a career research and job listings Web site, said they frequently checked e-mail in meetings. Nearly 20 percent said they had been castigated for poor manners regarding wireless devices.

Despite resistance, the etiquette debate seems to be tilting in the favor of smartphone use, many executives said. Managing directors do it. Summer associates do it. It spans gender and generation, private and public sectors. A few years ago, only "the investment banker types" would use BlackBerrys in meetings, said Frank Kneller, the chief executive of a company in Elk Grove Village, Ill., that makes water-treatment systems. "Now it's everybody." He said that if he spotted 6 of 10 colleagues tapping away, he knew he had to speed up his presentation.

It is routine for Washington officials to bow heads silently around a conference table—not praying—while others are speaking, said Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although BlackBerrys are banned in certain areas of the State Department headquarters for security reasons, their use is epidemic where they are allowed. "You'll have half the participants BlackBerrying each other as a submeeting, with a running commentary on the primary meeting," Mr. Reines said.

The Times headlined this article, "At Meetings, It's Mind Your BlackBerry or Mind Your Manners." But the story is much bigger than manners. It's the ascent of the virtual world as a rival to the physical world . We've talked about this trend before in the context of cell phones and driving . When phone calls draw your eyes off the road , and when electronic messages pull your attention out of business meetings, it's time to think about what's happening to the relationship between your mind and your body. You're drifting out of physical space. Not just you but the millions of others who are doing the same thing.

That point about "the etiquette debate ... tilting in the favor of smartphone use"? That's the virtual world gaining parity and vying for supremacy. That guy who speeds up his presentation when most of his listeners disappear into their BlackBerrys? That's the physical world struggling to keep up. That observation from Clinton's adviser about "half the participants BlackBerrying each other as a submeeting"? That's no joke. They really are having a meeting. It just happens to be in the virtual world. If your body is in the room but your brain is offline, you're missing that meeting. You're absent.

The virtual world has many advantages in the fight for your attention. It can connect you to people and places far away. It can tell you almost instantly what you need to know. It lets you flip through incoming messages at your own pace, unlike the boring presentation you're enduring in the physical world. And it lets you communicate privately, even in public. That's what many of those "submeetings" are, an executive tells Williams. They're exchanges of "things that you might not say out loud."

There's the real story: People are migrating from the old world to the new one. That's why you're here, reading and exchanging ideas with people you've never met offline. "Manners" is just the old world's way of protesting this migration. But protestation is weak. The old world has no inherent claim to your attention. It will have to earn it.