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Why Mobile Phones are Ruining Conferences

Are you reading this on your mobile phone? Tablet?

I’m glad you’re reading it, but I’d like you to consider the context around you right now. What are you there for, and why are you using your device?

Perhaps you’re on your laptop, at home or in an office, and are enjoying some precious blog-surfing time to fill up your inspiration tank. Good for you. I assure you it’ll be worth it.

But if you’re in a conference – typically a melting pot of brilliant minds, a place for learning and listening, a place of reflection, inspiration and meeting new people (not to overdo it) – why, might I ask, are you on your phone?

Traditionally, when people went to conferences – particularly conferences which lasted a few days and had hundreds or thousands of attendees – people went to seminars, maybe took some notes and, at lunch breaks or other times between sessions, they stood around… awkwardly. But this was crucial: it provided the impetus for striking up conversations and meeting people.

Everyone knew it would be slightly awkward. Some were better at it than others, but all would expect nothing less than to stand around like a lemon in the lobby hoping that someone would come and speak to them. And, eventually, a conversation would be struck up – and it would be a pleasure.

Now, however, in this “iPhone era”, everyone has a mobile phone or tablet – and wherever they go, so does their device.

So, now, as soon as that awkward moment arrives at a conference, people instantly reach into their pockets or handbags, pull out their tech, and start tapping away. Some (most?) of us may convince ourselves that we’ve got important emails to answer or things to do – but I suggest the reality is we’re doing it because we feel a little bit awkward.

What this means is that it’s now very difficult to start conversations at conferences. Not only do we ourselves avoid awkward contact by distracting ourselves on our device, but our use of our phone/tablet etc. pulls up a wall around us that makes it infinitely more difficult for others to talk to us.

In fact, research by Misra, Cheng, Genevie and Yuan has found that the presence of a mobile phone in a social context lowers the quality of face-to-face interaction. People who converse in the absence of mobile phones have exhibited higher levels of empathy and, generally, higher quality conversations.

Another, perhaps more challenging, issue is that phones provide a distraction from deeper thinking in general. Short, fast phone functions reward us with a quick succession of small highs as we complete small tasks efficiently. This is not bad in itself – but when it replaces a different kind of work – the longer, deeper, reflective work required of envisioning and evaluating – it trespasses on an important space.

This thinking is why, at our Talking Philanthropy symposium last year, we invited our guests to turn off and hand in their phones and other devices. As Colin Cameron wrote in his blog about the proceedings, “this cleared the way for focused and undiluted conversation, without the distractions or impersonal interfaces for which technology today is almost unavoidably responsible.”

I think it’s important that we ask ourselves what we went to the conference for in the first place. Was it a “come away and reflect” moment or an “okay I’ll squeeze this into my already busy life because it’s a good thing to do” moment? If we keep checking our phones, we put every conference into the latter category – we keep ourselves stretched between two social spheres at once and it is, generally, both unproductive and exhausting.

It’s true: thinking deeper and bigger is not always easy, and striking up conversations with strangers is almost universally awkward. But I like to think that we conference attendees are not there for mere comfort and ease. So, I suggest we challenge ourselves: put the phone away, and start that awkward conversation.