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Meetings going 'topless'

Without laptops, that is. Silicon Valley is unplugging -- at least in conference rooms.

March 31, 2008|Jessica Guynn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — As the capital of information technology, Silicon Valley may have more gadgets per capita than any other place on the planet. Yet, even here, "always on" can be a real turnoff.

Frustrated by workers so plugged in that they tuned out in the middle of business meetings, a growing number of companies are going "topless," as in no laptops allowed. Also banned from some conference rooms: BlackBerrys, iPhones and other devices on which so many people have come to depend.

Meetings have never been popular in Silicon Valley. Engineers would rather write code than talk about it. Over the years, companies have come up with innovative ways to keep meetings from sucking up time. Some remove chairs and force people to stand. Others get everyone to drink a glass of water beforehand.

But as laptops got lighter and smart phones even smarter, people discovered a handy diversion -- making more eye contact with their screens than one another. It became so pervasive that Todd Wilkens, who works at a San Francisco design firm, waged a "personal war against CrackBerry."

"In this age of wireless Internet and mobile e-mail devices, having an effective meeting or working session is becoming more and more difficult," he wrote on his company blog in November. "Laptops, Blackberries, Sidekicks, iPhones and the like keep people from being fully present. Aside from just being rude, partial attention generally leads to partial results."

Wilkens' firm, Adaptive Path, now encourages everyone to leave their laptops at their desks. His colleague, Dan Saffer, coined the term "topless" as in laptop-less. Mobile and smart phones must be stowed on a counter or in a box during meetings.

"All of our meetings got a lot more productive," Wilkens said.

It's not exactly attention deficit. Linda Stone, a software executive who worked for Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp., calls it "continuous partial attention." It stems from an intense desire to connect and be connected all of the time, or, in her words, to be "a live node on the network."

Etiquette has suffered in the process. "Face-to-face meetings have become a low priority because they're constantly being interrupted by technology, and many people can't figure out what to do," said Sue Fox, author of "Business Etiquette for Dummies." "What's more important -- the gadget or the person, or people, you're with?"

High-tech distractions

The ever-increasing speed and power of technology allow people to effortlessly toggle back and forth between tasks. The wireless revolution has only accelerated this trend, turning every laptop computer into a lightning-quick, mobile communications hub. Attention is increasingly at a deficit in all facets of society -- the workplace, the classroom, the city council meeting and the social occasion.

Universities, for example, invested small fortunes in wireless Internet only to come to an alarming conclusion: Access designed to boost learning quickly became an irresistible distraction. University of Michigan law school professor Don Herzog said students were hunting for sublets, reading the newspaper, checking stock quotes or sending e-mail during class.

The law school blocked wireless access in classrooms. When that didn't work, some professors banned laptops. The reaction from students was mixed: Some said they were grateful to be able to concentrate, others were sullen, Herzog said.

As technology becomes cheaper and more powerful, the debate is intensifying about how far universities should go in restricting its use in classrooms. Most graduate schools including the UCLA Anderson School of Management let professors decide whether they should limit laptop use. More than 75% of professors at UCLA's law school shut off Internet access in their classrooms, said Sean Pine, the law school's chief information officer.

Late last year, Jeremy Zawodny, who works with outside software developers at Yahoo Inc., attended his first "no laptop" meeting at the Sunnyvale, Calif., Internet company.

"I looked around in amazement that no one had their laptops open," he said. "I try not to bring my laptop to meetings because the pull is strong if I am not interested in something or if the topic doesn't directly involve me."

After attending a few such meetings, Zawodny blogged about it earlier this month. He said he felt conflicted. On the one hand, he said, he was tempted to skip meetings if colleagues divided their attention. On the other, it's "absolutely ridiculous that we have to mandate common courtesy and force people off their laptops long enough to have a useful meeting," he wrote.

Zawodny's post got a thumbs-up from Nelson Minar, a former Google Inc. engineer, who says supervisors can be the worst offenders.

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