From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 31 , 2007*: The tedium of real time.

In Israel it seems to be conference time. At least in the circles I'm involved with, almost any organization that respects itself holds some sort of conference or mini-conference in the last couple of months of the school year. I suppose that this is the same in North America as well, though actually, it seems to always be conference time there. Judging from the blogs I read, it seems that at any particular moment, if it's not conference time where you live, it is where somebody else lives.

Conferences can be fun. We get to visit with people whom we ordinarily don't meet (other than at conferences) and to ask them what's new. We get to view all kinds of new technological developments (which we probably don't need) that are on exhibit. We may also have the opportunity to hear the same presentations over and over again. But the strange thing about conferences is that their stated purpose is often not the reason people attend them. If what I want to do is visit with people whom I haven't seen in a while, the coffee breaks are the best time. And the corollary to that is, of course, that if I'm really interested in learning something new, the lectures aren't.

Only very rarely do I encounter a lecture at a conference from which I glean more information than I would have gleaned had I read the paper on which it was based. Frankly, only rarely do I encounter a lecture at these conferences at which I don't find myself falling asleep. During the hour and a half of a conference session, when I look around at the other people in the audience I usually discover that they're as fidgety as I am, waiting for the coffee break to get to the important part, to the reason they came in the first place. But though this might be construed as a complaint about the level of the presentations I attend (and often that level leaves more than a bit to be desired) what disturbs me about them isn't the presentations themselves, but the fact that I have to adapt myself to their rhythm, rather than the presentations adapting themselves to mine. While someone is making his or her presentation I can often feel my body language edging them on - "nu, get to the point already", and I know that were I reading the paper instead of listening to it, I'd be skimming that particular part. And why shouldn't I? While I'm listening to one lecture, at least two others are taking place in another room. Maybe they're the ones I should have attended instead of this one. And in the real-time world, I have to make a choice about which sessions to attend.

Sometimes we can't decide which session to attend because nothing in the abstract book seems particularly interesting, and we settle into the back row of the session in the room closest to where we are, expecting to make an almost unnoticed escape in a few moments. And suddenly we discover that the person presenting has done a fascinating piece of research which we knew nothing about. It's at times like these that we become critically aware of the pleasures of serendipity. But as pleasurable as this sort of experience can be, it doesn't seem to happen very often. What's more, serendipity on the web is capable of creeping up on us with much greater frequency that it can at conferences.

But actually, this column isn't about conferences, only about one of the important elements that makes them tick - real time. Perhaps I should call it one-to-one time - the congruence of the period of time over which a particular activity takes place, and the time needed for us to experience it. A podcast, for instance, is in one-to-one time. We have to listen to it as though it's a live broadcast (unless some new software exists that permits us to absorb the content of a podcast in fast-forward) in order to truly get through it. A transcript of that same podcast, on the other hand, isn't in one-to-one time. We can skim through it, put it down, come back to it, relate to it on our own terms. Perhaps podcasts are best suited for being listened to while driving while on our way to work (or on our way to a conference), when we really shouldn't be reading a paper. Which brings me back to conferences - they're the quintessential one-to-one.

Conferences ordinarily demand physical presence in order for us to participate. In other words, we add the constriction of one-to-one place to the already existing constriction of one-to-one time. Of course for a number of years already we've been freed from this place constriction via what are ordinarily referred to as virtual conferences. Personally, however, I've always had a problem with these. If the conference is being held overseas we can save expensive fares by logging in from home. But most people who go to a conference overseas do so because it allows them the opportunity to visit a foreign country, to perhaps do a bit of touring as well. If the conference is being held only a drive in traffic from home there are clear benefits to participating from home, and in that way saving the time and money (and frustration) involved in driving. We can even drink our coffee during the presentations instead of waiting for the coffee breaks. But then, of course, we miss the coffee breaks, which (I'll note once again) are among the main reasons for attending in the first place. Virtual conferences today often have instant messaging tools which attempt to take the place of the coffee breaks, but I've yet to find an online tool that can create a sense of mingling in a group.

The major drawback of one-to-one time, however, is also its greatest advantage. Twice before in these pages (almost five years ago, and six and a half years ago) I've noted that even though the acoustics and the ambience of listening to a CD at home usually surpass those of a concert hall (especially after factoring in the price of tickets, gas, a babysitter and various additional considerations) I rarely sit down to listen to a recording at home, or succeed in listening to one from start to finish. The same holds true for taking part in a conference. Particularly in these times of multitasking, if we don't put aside time exclusively for a task such as a conference, chances are good that we may end up being virtually present, but we're not really going to be participating. Attending a conference from home is an open invitation to let our attention waver and stray. If I stay home in order to log in to a virtual conference, I'll probably also be checking my mail throughout the day, and of course I'll have my word processor open so that I can perhaps get some writing accomplished. And why not leave Bloglines open so that I'll be able to check what's happening with my RSS feeds? And those are just the computer-related items. Nobody's going to notice if I leave the screen for a few minutes to make a sandwich. Maybe I'll take the opportunity to listen to some music as well, and those dishes need washing, and didn't I promise I'd clean up my study? Even if the virtual conference has video presentations that are more capable of holding my partial-attention than just audio presentations, being at my desk in front of the computer is an open invitation to let my mind wander, and as soon as my mind starts wandering, my fingers on the keyboard do so as well. After only a short period of time I'll discover that I'm registered at the conference, but I'm actually busy doing something else.

Though any sort of information that is transmitted temporally takes place in one-to-one time, I suppose that face-to-face communication is the ultimate expression of that sort of time. Inhumane as it may sound, as individual absorbers of information, one-to-one time presents definite disadvantages. It constrains us. It limits the amount of information we can be involved with at any given moment. It demands that we adjust ourselves to its pace. But that doesn't mean I'd like to do away with it. I've certainly got nothing against face to face communication. Frankly, I've been using it most of my life, and on the whole it's served me quite well. But I suppose that when I want it, I like it straight. If there's no other choice, a web camera definitely offers a desirable alternative to not having face-to-face communication. But when that web camera offers me access to information that I can better make use of on my own terms, at my own pace, I'm willing to forego it. And as far as conferences go, let me read the abstract book and choose which full-text reports I want to devote my time to. But don't do away with conferences altogether. Sometimes, concentrating them into short periods of time focuses us, causes us to devote ourselves to the topics raised, and then permits us to attend to other tasks. And please, make the coffee breaks longer. They're the part that makes the best use of one-to-one time.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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