It was a defining moment when Bill Maher called out HuffPost Live host Jacob Soboroff last week for continually checking his computer while the two were talking. Defining, at least for me; I can't speak for Soboroff, who later called it a life highlight when Maher called him a "pussy" over it. I have no doubt.
From where I sit -- which is smack in the Boomer End Zone -- Maher's comments were right on the money. "Why do you keep looking at that computer? We're having a conversation!" Maher said in mock outrage. "It's so rude ... like leaving your phone on during dinner!"
Now I don't know Soboroff personally -- he works one floor and about 30 years away from me -- so I may be going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing he does in fact leave his phone on during dinner. (Actually he told me he "tries" to turn it off but admits that he has a hard time. "I struggle with it," he said.)
Truth is, many boomers have a different perspective than younger people on the place of smartphones and laptops in our lives. Just because we can have access to our emails, texts and oodles of information (worthless and otherwise) at our fingertips 24/7 doesn't mean we necessarily should avail ourselves of it, does it? Sometimes, there's nothing wrong -- make that nothing better -- than a good old-fashioned conversation. One where you talk, face-to-face, and no screens are involved. I think Soboroff hit a nerve with Maher and I was glad to see the young'un called out on it.
For the record, I'm neither a technophobe nor tech-illiterate. I can tweet and pin along with the best of them. I even actually understand that Soboroff was simply using the new tools of our old trade when he interviewed Maher. He was checking live posts, comments, researching, and all the while doing a masterful job of keeping the conversation with Maher going while his fingers skated over his keyboard. He never missed a beat. That kind of multi-tasking, split-brain syndrome is a gift and I notice many of my younger colleagues possess it. Me? I need more quiet in the room.
Truth is, whether technology is an asset or a distraction depends on how you see it -- and use it.
Adam Rose, the Huffington Post's Standards Editor, recalls an old roommate who loved to "argue about anything and everything." For the ex-roommate, life is much easier now that he can just look at the smartphone permanently attached to his palm to glean information. He now marvels at how annoying it was to have to go find an encyclopedia to settle disagreements in the past. He's definitely my go-to guy when the "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" host lets me phone a friend. But I'm not sure I'd want to have dinner with him.
"Integrating technology into a conversation to facilitate it is a great thing," said Rose, who is 30. "It's frequently helpful to get an answer instead of just speculating wildly."
But then there's the other side of the coin. Technology can be a distraction -- an annoyance -- as it was to Maher.
When we speak, we should make eye contact, no? If you are looking at your computer screen or the latest text that popped up on your phone, you aren't looking at me. If you wanted to speak with me, why are you checking your Facebook updates?
I don't get it, much the same way I never got "call waiting" on my old landline phone. "Call waiting" essentially tells whoever you are speaking to that everybody else on the planet -- including some stranger trying to clean the carpets or sell you life insurance -- is more important than them. "Here, hold on while I make sure I don't want to speak to them more than I want to speak to you," is what is says. It's rude, people, just rude.
As for the "don't go anywhere without my laptop on my arm" crowd, I see how the pattern developed. We've graduated a generation of students who took class notes on laptops. Once they landed themselves jobs, bringing laptops or tablets to business meetings was just a natural extension of that. Still, I find myself wincing when we have a guest speaker in the office and I spot many colleagues sitting around the conference table, typing away on their computers. It feels like they aren't paying attention to the speaker and that -- at the very core -- is bad manners.
Don't get me wrong: I love staying connected. I am wired every waking minute of my day and compulsively check emails at red lights just to make sure I'm not missing something. But when someone wants to talk to me, I want to listen. To them.
(Check out the Maher clip below.)