Home' Technology Review : August 2005 Contents 46 FEATURE STORY
told him. She explained that the hosts of the conference---Walt Mossberg and Kara
Swisher, two of the Journal s technology writers---had decided that no one should have
Internet access from the main ballroom.
Jason, naturally, wrote a new blog post about the incident (from the hallway this
time). Forbidding live blogging at a technology conference, he remarked, "seems a
very retrograde move." Mossberg responded hours later. "It is untrue that Kara and I
banned live blogging at D3, from the ballroom or anywhere else," he explained. "We
merely declined to provide Wi-Fi, to avoid the common phenomenon that has ruined
too many tech conferences---near universal checking of e-mail and sur ng of the Web
during the program."
Other bloggers soon pounced on the minicontroversy. Some commended Mossberg s
decision and warned against the perils of "continuous partial attention," the state of men-
tal blurriness thought to be induced when information is constantly pouring in from
multiple sources. Others extolled the social bene ts of "always on" connectivity. "Dur-
ing conferences the back channel can and does enhance the fore channel, especially if I m
able to look up infor mation that would be too tedious, basic, or digressive to ask about
during a Q&A," wrote Gardner Campbell, an assistant vice president for teaching and
learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. "I
can also share the experience, and be newly energized, by being in touch with sta and
friends and family who are not able to attend with me."
Both sides had a point. But the most telling thing about the debate was that it hap-
pened at all. Without much hoopla, many conference centers and university and corpo-
rate campuses---even entire metropolises, in the case of Philadelphia and a few other
cities---are being turned into giant Wi-Fi hot spots. Trains, planes, airports, and libraries
are also installing wireless networks to serve customers carrying wireless gadgets. As a
result, many businesspeople, students, and Starbucks addicts now expect cheap, easy
access to the Internet as a matter of course. Losing it can feel like being stranded.
Constant connectivity has changed what it means to participate in a conference or
any other gathering. Using chat rooms, blogs, wikis, photo-sharing sites, and other
technologies, people at real-world meetings can now tap into an electronic swirl of
commentary and interpretation by other participants---the "back channel" mentioned
by Campbell. There are trade-o s: this new information stream can indeed draw atten-
tion away from the here and now. But many people seem willing to make them, pleased
by the productivity they gain in circumstances where they d otherwise be cut o from
their o ces or homes. There is meaning in all of this. After a decade of hype about "mo-
bility," personal computing has nally and irreversibly cut its bonds to the desktop and
has moved into devices we can carry everywhere. We re using this newly portable com-
puting power to connect with others in ways no one predicted---and we won t be easily
parted from our new tools.
To grasp how rapidly things are changing, consider all the things you can do today that
would have been di cult or impossible just a few years ago: you can query Google via
text message from your phone, keep an online diary of the Web pages you visit, down-
load podcasts to your iPod, label your photos or bookmarks with appropriate tags at
Flickr or Delicious , store gigabytes of personal e-mail online, listen to the music on your
home PC from any other computer connected to the Net, or nd your house on an aerial
photograph at Google Maps. Most of these applications are free---and the ones coming
close behind them will be even more powerful. With more and more phones carrying
Global Positioning System (GPS) chips, for example, it s likely that companies will o er
a cor nucopia of new location-based information ser vices; you ll soon be able to nd an
online review instantly as you drive past a restaurant, or visit a landmark and download
photos and comments left by others.
This explosion of new capabilities shouldn t be mistaken for "feature creep," the ac-
cretion of special functions that has made common programs such as Microsoft Word so
mystifyingly complex. There is something di erent about the latest tools. They are both
Blog post: See pontin.trblogs.com/
Other bloggers: Including me.
Continuous partial attention: A phrase
coined by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft
vice president and a widely respected
authority on human-computer interfaces.
Wikis: Web pages that allow users to add
content or edit existing content.
Podcasts: Amateur radio shows without
the radio. Podcasters produce MP3
recordings on whatever subjects interest
them and publish the files on the Internet,
where listeners can subscribe to shows,
download files to their computers, and
then transfer them to their portable music
players, such as the Apple iPod.
Delicious: A "social bookmarking" site
created by freelance software developer
Joshua Schachter. Users can store URLs,
personal comments, and descriptive tags
that will help them identify Web pages they
want to find later. See del.icio.us.
Flickr: The photo-sharing site of choice
for many digital photographers. One of its
trademark features is the ability to add
descriptive words, or "tags," to photo-
graphs, so that the photographer or
others can find them more easily later.
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