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Joi Ito in the New York Times

From a story in the New York Times on instant messaging and blogging during classes, conferences, lectures, and the like:

Joichi Ito, a venture capitalist and former chief executive for the Japanese branch of the Internet service provider PSINet, opened a chat room for back-channeling during Supernova, a communications conference held this month in Crystal City, Va., just outside Washington. But Mr. Ito readily acknowledges the downside. "There is definitely a lot less focus in the room," he said, "but I think we were already starting to suffer from that."

At high-tech conferences where everyone is already wired to the gills with BlackBerry pagers and cellphones and can cope easily with constant connectedness and streaming information, the concept of multitrack communication channels almost seems matter-of-course. "This is not something that is going to go away," Mr. Ito said. As many technology experts point out, if laptops were banned, people would use cellphones. If wireless Internet access were not officially available, networking gurus would find a way to create ad hoc connections.

Some observers say that the multitrack channels will simply be considered a given by a young generation that has honed multitasking to a fine art and grew up on VH1's "pop-up" videos, in which commentary about the artists pops up on the screen during the song.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ito is already creating a new riff on the concept. He said he was working with a group on designing a "hecklebot," a light-emitting diode screen that displays heckling messages that are typed during online chats at conferences. "I want to make something that I can put in a suitcase and take to conferences," he said. He describes it as a subversive device that will get people thinking about the significance of the back channel. From the chat room, he said, "you could send something like, 'Stop pontificating.' "

If back channeling improves the quality of speeches during conferences -- many of which can be stultifying -- then I'm all for it.


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I think that a lot of 'back-channeling' boils down to people being unable to stop waiting to talk. That kind of behavior is disruptive (and disrespectful!) to the speaker, and it's disruptive to other listeners -- both in face-to-face converstations and in meetings or lectures. Can't we have the self-discipline to wait until after the lecture or meeting to discuss what was said?

Michael, I understand what you're saying, but how many sleep-inducing speeches have you attended where the ability to silently chat with other attendees and discuss the topic at hand would have made for a more productive time?

If it's truly mind-numbing, why not discreetly slip out the back and chat with others who've left? It's a tried-and-true system that's worked for ages!

Where's the techno-fun in that? :-)

I know, you're right...I'm just getting old and cranky. Get out of my yard!

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