The other day I gave a talk at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle. It was a bit like entering the belly of the beast. Technology companies worship at the altar of speed and their products are designed to help us do everything faster.
They also condition us to expect everything to happen at the click of a mouse.
A couple of hours before the talk, I was watching TV in my hotel room when a Microsoft ad came on. It featured animated drawings dancing on the screen while an ambitious CEO talked about how Microsoft software was a godsend for his company. I can’t remember the exact wording, but towards the end of the ad he said something like “…in business you have to do everything at the speed of light.”
Not a very Slow sentiment.
So did I get scalped and lynched during my lunchtime lecture at Microsoft HQ? Far from it. The Slow message seemed to strike a chord with the employees who came to hear me speak. The crowd hung around asking questions and sharing their own reflections even after the 90-minute session was over. This morning one of the organizers emailed to say that my visit has sparked a lot of discussion within the company.
I’m not surprised. Increasingly, it’s people inside the technology companies that are realizing there is too much speed in the system - and they’re looking for ways to slow down a little. Microsoft is no exception.
After my event, I spent some time hanging out with some of the company’s researchers. One of them was Eric Horvitz, who specializes in the interplay between technology and culture – how we use our gadgets and why, and how that use affects us.
Eric is overseeing some new research into what happens when people use laptops while attending public lectures. This particular brand of multitasking is now commonplace. At conferences, you see loads of people listening to speeches with their laptops open, reading and typing away in the eerie glow. Some are taking notes on the talk, but many are handling email, surfing the Web on unrelated topics or updating their Facebook pages. Or they’re tweeting.
Is there anything wrong with this? I think so. For a start, it’s just plain rude. When you attend a talk, the least you can do is give the speaker your full attention. Or at least give the impression that you are listening. Just think how irritating it is to share a dinner table with someone who constantly turns away to deal with incoming emails on a Blackberry. Or how important it is to look a person in the eye when you talk to them.
A public talk is different from a social gathering, of course, but don’t the basic rules of courtesy still apply?
You could argue that the world is changing and that people no longer expect to receive anyone’s full attention. But even if that is true – and I hope it’s not – then we should be worried about how that change affects our understanding of what is being said to us.
Back to that study at Microsoft HQ. Researchers are filming audiences during public talks and then asking them questions about the content. By plotting a time-line, they hope to work out how comprehension waxes and wanes during a speech and how those peaks and troughs correspond to laptop-users looking up and down from their screens.
My guess is that people absorb less when their attention turns to the computer - and that their general comprehension of the talk also suffers. I suppose that as a public speaker I would say that. Like anyone else who stands up on stage, I want to feel like I have the full and undivided attention of everyone in the room. But there is more at work here than my fragile ego.
What brain scan research is teaching us about multitasking is that it doesn’t work: that the human brain cannot process two streams of information at the same time, and that attempting to do so is a recipe for confusion, inefficiency and errors.
Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world where everyone can devote their full attention to everything they do. Some Microsoft employees argue that their workload makes it impossible to unplug for 90 minutes during the day. So they choose to multitask through the lunchtime lectures: giving speakers some of their attention rather than staying away and giving them none at all. Maybe they have a point. Maybe some Slow is better than none.
Either way, I’m looking forward to hearing the results of the Microsoft research and will report back here on the findings in due course.
In the meantime, if you’re reading this blog entry while attending a public talk, you might want to consider…