Am I Coming Home, or Leaving it?

For the past three days, I’ve been spending my time in San Francisco, attending the Zend/PHP Conference and Expo. In addition to enjoying some time in a new place and some outrageously expensive but excellent food, I’ve had a chance to get a feel for a distinctly different atmosphere than I’m used to. In some ways, I suppose I should have expected it, but it has been surprising to me in a lot of ways.

For example, I work for a company that is centered around a web software product. I work with a lot of very technical people. However, the company also employs a fair number of people who are not software engineers and designers. We have marketing specialists, executives, and support staff who, while they are all highly intelligent people, choose to focus their intelligence in technical fields to varying degrees. Here at the conference, I have been in rooms with hundreds of people in them, and in every case, there have been a minimum of 50% of the occupants of a room actively making use of either a laptop, PDA, or a cell phone with a browser.

This is remarkable, compared to other environments, in a couple of ways. First, it is unusual to find a large group of people who take it for granted that they will bring with them, and make active use of, their technology constantly. For many people, using a computer is something that they do at certain times, like when seated at their desk at work, and not at others. For most of the people here, the idea that one would need to set aside times to actively engage with their technology would be considered absurd.

The second big difference, at least to me, is the extent to which multitasking is assumed to be the normal mode of operation for the majority of the people here. Most of the attendees are young, with the majority seeming to be in their late twenties and thirties, but it has not been unusual for me to see people in their fifties and sixties answering emails, blogging, taking notes, and having a conversation with the person sitting next to them, even while they listen to a presentation. I have certainly read various commentators who have talked about how technology is increasingly making multitasking a staple of many people’s existences, but seeing it happen so universally here has really driven that point home to me. It has also been refreshing to be able to do three things at once without feeling out of place from the people around me.

Having now had several days to get used to it, I wonder what it will be like to leave here this afternoon and return home. Will I find it jarring to be around groups of people who expect to leave their technology on their desks when they get up? Will it be strange to sit in a room in which only one or two people have computers in front of them, and in which not a single one of them are actively live-blogging the meeting as it happens?

There are, of course, some serious questions to be answered about how desirable it is to live like this. Is this culture of multitasking, constantly switching between things on a second-by-second basis driving us all into an insane world of chronic ADD? Is it really valuable for me to be able to open up a web browser and read a live blog of what’s happening in a room just down the hall from me in real time when I know that if I were to wait all of twenty four hours I could download the slides and likely the audio of the presentation happening there?

In spite of my cautious response to much of what is happening around me, even as I write this, I have to admit that this feels very comfortable to me. Perhaps this is a symptom of my generation, or of the career path I’ve chosen. For whatever reason, it feels like I’m among people like me, and that is a good feeling. Tomorrow, I’ll be back in a world where none of this is normal, and while that might well turn out to be good for my psychological well-being, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a little bit sad.

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