Back in the mid-2000s I was invited to the campus of a tech giant in the Pacific Northwest that shall, for the sake of the InfoWorld legal team, remain nameless. There was far too much blathering and far too little free scotch for my taste, but the event that sticks out most in my memory happened when I was escorted to dinner by a pair of nervous, presumably armed PR flaks.
Upon entering the restaurant, I saw no fewer than three tables populated by groups of four to six diners, each of whom was staring at their respective smartphones. A diner might begin speaking to his/her/its dinner companions, and all of them would nod in agreement, though never taking their eyes from their phones.
I’m from the Atlantic Northeast, where dropping eye contact during a conversation is like holding up a flashcard reading, “I don’t respect you, you worthless tool bag.” The scenario bugged the hell out of me, but my PR guardians said it was the “new normal” for that part of the world.
Addicted to ADD
Since then, this behavior has spread like a virus and is now commonplace anywhere you find smartphones, maybe even anyplace you find people. Our ever-increasing state of connectedness has, in this snark’s opinion, created an entire civilization of people suffering from digital-specific ADD.
Try as we might, it’s impossible for most of us to concentrate on an analog source for more than three minutes before we must connect digitally: email, text, Facepain, whatever. Even then, we often look at two, often three digital channels simultaneously. Case in point: This post took almost a week to type because one hand is always surfing tweets on my iPad. (Help! I can’t stop.)
Saunter into any restaurant in the Western world tonight and you’ll instantly witness a variant on the following conversation:
Person A making eye contact, both hands on the table: “Let me tell you about this Really Important Thing.”
Person B making eye contact, both hands on the table: “Shoot.”
Person A still eye contacting with visible digits: “Well, blahdey blahdey, blooh blooh.”
Person B suddenly sweating and fondling whichever pocket his smartphone is in but manfully trying to remain part of the conversation: “Uh huh.”
Person A still bubbling along: “Blahdey blahdey narcissism rules.”
Person B without asking permission takes out smartphone and starts scrolling through email then Facebook then today’s trending kitten videos, shuddering with relief and lacking any shame whatever: “Uh huh.”
Person A without acknowledging Person B’s change of focus in the slightest: “Blahdey blahdey obliviousness is bliss and I’m definitely more important than any kitten video.”
Person C, who was abandoned by that table’s previous group of diners because she was fixedly ogling her Apple Watch the whole time, looks up: “Huh?”
You once had to apologize for or at least acknowledge this type of behavior and come up with a sorry excuse. Otherwise, the offended party was legally allowed to dropkick you for the betterment of humanity. After all, you decided to read your email in the middle of your buddy describing the discovery of his wife’s secret family chained in the attic and his decision not to confront her, but instead claim them as dependents.
Not anymore -- now it’s perfectly OK for your squirrel-brain to jump tracks anytime anywhere because ADD is no longer a disease. Thanks to the tech industry, it’s a productive, connected, collaborative lifestyle. Obviously, I blame Zuckerberg … and kittens.
The single-screen experience
But one company is fighting back and it’s that same Pacific Northwestern tech giant that turned me on to this behavioral pandemic in the first place (screw InfoWorld’s lawyers): Microsoft. That’s right, Microsoft today warmed my heart by announcing a concerted effort to decrease tech-ADD through its new flagship product, the Surface Hub.
The Surface Hub is a wonderfully practical device that combines a massive conference room HDTV with Windows 10 touchability, live videoconferencing, and electronic whiteboarding through Microsoft OneNote -- a core app in the Microsoft Office suite that I can personally attest has been opened and subsequently closed by more than 11 people who don’t live in Redmond, Wash., or weren’t getting the stink eye from Satya Nadella over a free meal (or maybe not a free meal depending on what they said about the greatness and revolutionary capabilities of OneNote).
For a measly $20,000, you can tack a Surface Hub in your conference room, and anyone attending the meeting can stare at that screen in unison and think about work rather than gaze at their smartphones individually while thinking about kittens. You can feed the digital screen demon while still controlling focus and productivity.
Of course, Microsoft also morphed Lync into Skype for Business, exactly the same app but with a cleverly less intuitive interface designed to run great -- or probably just run -- on all kinds of mobile devices. That means fewer people are going to show up to that conference room because they’ll be Skyping in through their phones while ignoring their children.
But you can’t ask Microsoft to solve everything.