May 25, 2005

I'm Cool With Wireless Being Shut Down During Presentations

I was reading the outrage expressed by the MIT Technology Review editor, Jason Pontin.

Wait...stop there...yes, before I begin, that is why I think the Tech review sucks, they have absolutely the wrong person at the helm. If I want Business 2.0, I'll read flippin' Business 2.0. If I wanted Red Herring (which Jason ran during the silly period) I'd read that, if it is still in business. The tech review was great, once, because it assumed the reader had a brain and was willing to learn new things. It wasn't a breathless review of the LATEST! BUSINESS! MODEL! AND! FUNDING! ROUND! which made red herring so very tiring. Mind you, even during the boom, I considered Red Herring unreadable. But this isn't about that....this is about his disagreement with D3's policy of no web/laptop use during speeches.

I speak and have spoken at a lot of conferences, and I'm curtailing it for a number of reasons: 1) I'm very busy, so only a few conferences 'get' to have me (not that this is a huge privilege, mind you). 2) speaking at conferences is really a huge waste of time in a way that it didn't use to be. I have no desire to compete with an 802.11b connection, that's it. If people can get better information/have a more rewarding time online....great! That's awesome. Just do it somewhere else. That is what the lobby or speaker room is for.

I was at a Usenix conference 4 or so years ago and was watching a really cool talk on wireless network stability. As part of the talk, the presenter disrupted the wireless network with a 'simple' hack he had come up with to shut down the network. You knew -exactly- when he did it because every person who had been surfing/iming/etc almost simultaneously looked up. We had a good laugh, but by question was this....what were these people doing here? Go outside! Stay home!

Yes, I'm speaking from hypocritical experience, I've done this, and I've gotten less out of conferences than I should. Thus lately, I've taken to killing off im and wireless when I'm doing something. Multitasking is a great thing for chips, but it means that you only get a shallow experience when it is your own attention you split. At Google, my fabulous employer, we are very lucky in that we have 2 or 3 amazingly cool presentations a week (tech talks, natch) about amazing topics in machine learning, random computery goodness and Google specific technologies. I've never worked in an environment where I can learn as much as I can here. To waste that opportunity on email or im should be criminal.

Honestly, I'd prefer the ability to kill a wireless network while talking. In fact, if you come to the O'Reilly Open Source convention and attending my talk, plan on using your laptop for notetaking, I'm going to try to find that program the presenter demonstrated at usenix and will use that. Or maybe I'll just unplug the access point. The great thing about this is that it will totally raise the stakes for me being a more entertaining, knowledgeable speaker. And lord help the person who fails to shut off their cell phone. I'm going to get way aggro about that.

I'm also changing how I use presentation packages, switching to a photo album of visual aids and no more bullets (or at least ones that the audience sees, anyway, they're fine as guideposts for me privately). See you there?


Michael Parekh said...

re: your comment:
>>I've never worked in an environment where I can learn as much as I can here<<

I'm sure that the fire hose of learning at Google everyday must be amazing...however, as someone who spent over 20 years at a fabulous company in another industry, and shared the above sentiment, there's always new stuff to be learned outside the corporate walls.

Good post...also, as a former speakerholic, I thought the wireless hack/audience looking up anecdote was priceless. Thanks for sharing.

Dossy said...

[...] it will totally raise the stakes for me being a more entertaining, knowledgeable speaker.

Indeed -- I think presenters have gotten too cozy with the fact that the audience isn't paying full attention.

When's the last time a truly bad presenter (incorrect facts, wrong conclusions, etc.) got heckled off the stage?

I'm also changing how I use presentation packages, [...]

Amen. Reminds me of Tufte's 'toon and Wired article on why PowerPoint is evil. Even a bunch of high school kids know this, in one of my favorite quotes:

"PowerPoint is a distraction," Cristian replied. "People use it when they don't know what to say."

If the value of someone's presentation is contained in their PowerPoint deck, then just make it available via the conference's website for download to paid registrants. Save everybody the airfare and hotel stay.

Todd Troxell said...

I think it's overly arrogant to demand everyone's attention in this way. Certianly you can get more from a speaker if you're paying full attention, but many speakers don't warrant full-attention. (Speaking especially about my academic experience)

Removing the network connection is a silly method of attention-enforcement. If people are not interested, they're not going to pay full attention, interweb connection or not. At least give them something interesting to do! I don't see how they're hurting anyone by connecting in the presentation room instead of the lobby.

Jason Pontin said...

You know, that's grossly unfair, Chris--I mean, your critique of Technology Review. Dislike me, or even dislike the old Red Herring, but the one thing the magazine doesn't do in any serious way is funding, business models, etc. We cover emerging technology in an aggressively dull way. That's my job as I see it: my reach never extends beyond explaining what the technologies' impact will be.

Indeed, the only thing I've dropped from the magazine are detailed explanations of how established technologies actually work--for the simpe reason that iPods or cell phones aren't emerging, new technologies.

Chris DiBona said...


I don't think it is unfair. On the front page of your website a few things jump out at me...

1) The stock tickers and graphs.
2) The "goobye to venture capital" story.
3) The Big Spenders Story
4) Your conference link (of your keynotes, 3 vcs)
5) Your short fuel cell and nano screen article, which is more like what the old tr would do that was appealing.
6) The security start-up review.

So, no, it isn't unfair (grossly or whatever) to say that you are doing what you know, which is Red Herring circa 1998/1999. I assume the owners of the magazine wanted this when they hired you. It just isn't what MIT Tech Review was enjoyable for (for me, others likely like the new format).

Chris DiBona

Chris DiBona said...


Yep, its silly, but I really do think that people walking out of the speech is an appropriate response to the presenter not engaging the audience or thier content falling flat. At least do it at the back of the room ;-)

Jason Pontin said...

The Web site is more financially and business focussed--because that's what drives traffic. But if you read the magazine, our core business, only section is business-focussed--readers can ignore it if they wish. Indeed, even our busines coverage is filtered through our interest in emerging technologies. For instance, although we have a page called "Dealflow" in the magazine, we choose the companies based on their technologies.

Also, finally, it's a little juvenile to think that business and funding doesn't provide the ecology within which technology is born, matures, and dies.

I can do things other than Red Herring. Did you see Acumen, my magazine between RH and TR. It had no business at all. It was a life sciences magazine.

Chris DiBona said...

So it was probably unfair of me to say that you are only capable of red herring like magazines. So sorry about that.

That said, yes, funding etc are important, but that wasn't what made MIT TR a good magazine to me. It wasn't juvenile for me to say what I liked about tr was the science, and that doesn't deny the role cash has in it.

Since we're putting words into each others mouths, I guess what you are saying is that you don't want MIT TR to be about science, but science business. Cool, sure, that's great, but what I liked was the old model...I don't really see why that is hard for you to accept. You aren't science news, after all. And I don't see why you deny that is what you do, even if it isn't my cup of tea.

Jason Pontin said...

Well, about that we can agree. TR now does both science/technology and business. But in a 64 page book, only 9 are dedicated to business and finance. Which seems about right to me. But as you suggest, Chris! Each to his own.

Jamie McCarthy said...

I've got a stack of TR going back 5+ years in my library, and it's pretty clear to me that its focus has changed more towards business recently. It used to be about new tech on the horizon, the scientists and engineers who were making that tech happen, and occasionally about the business processes that brought that tech to fruition. Now it feels about 50/50, half business and business capital, and half science and engineering.

My guess is that someone decided it would be a more lucrative magazine if it chased readers who had money to invest and wanted to be spoonfed tips about what fields to throw it at. The result is clearly less useful for those of us who work for a living. Of course I could be wrong about the specifics, but many or most of your reader have this impression. I'm on a mailing list where we discussed science/tech magazine recommendations, and the consensus was that TR was not as informative as it used to be.

And Chris, because of your nasty threats to disable WiFi, I am going to come to your OSCON talk, and start up an IRC channel where everyone in the room can trade real-time snarky remarks about how much you suck. Take that.

Chris DiBona said...

So long as you give me the IRC channel, we can just do it there, and I can stay home :-)

Michael Bresnahan said...

I work in a field that requires me to be in contact with my field people, the last conference I went to lasted 3 days, all day long, without a connection I would have been out of touch too long, however, I agree this take away from the presentation, if I know I'm going to be online I make sure to sit in the back of the room where I won't be a bother to anyone else (except all my co-workers who are also sitting in the back so they can work :-)

Michael Bresnahan said...

Oh, ya Chris I hope you don't mind I have your blog listed my links on my blog, not that anyone reads mine. Still read your blog all the time, keep up the good work.

_victor said...

Couldn't agree with you more... I work at at a school where students are paying around $50k for an associates degree, and what do they do? Play solitaire, IM, or surf...

I even told one class, "you know, you can get a T1 line and a new machine every YEAR for what you're paying, so if you're going to continue to waste time, go ahead and go home to do that."

Yeah, that went well.

Instead, I now do coolio Keynote presentations, full of hyperlinks, animation, and videos, along with a heapin' helpin' of real demos and walkthroughs to keep their interest.

That's helped a little.

But we're about to "go wireless" on several of our locations across the country... Can't wait to see the melee.

Michael Moncur said...

I've been to many conference presentations and I've been much more impressed by those that embraced WiFi than those that discouraged its use.

At a couple of sessions at the last SXSW, they announced an IRC channel for the session, then put the channel on the projection screen. Yes, it was a slight distraction and occasionally off topic, but it also got some essential audience reactions to the panelists very quickly without forcing them to drop into a difficult-to-end Q&A session, and because it was official and right up front, it didn't threaten to undermine the speakers at all.

Bezprzewodowy said...

Hi. Very interesting post. I hope that this blog will help me. Good work.

BTW, Google Wireless is my favourite Google's product.

Richard Austin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Why do you assume that the wifi users aren't conversing about your talk, or tweeting highlights, our querying up further information?
They can be having a parallel conversation inspired by your talk. Shut that off and what you say stays closed; enable and encourage it and you'll touch people elsewhere as well.
try tweeting highlights from google tech talks you attend...