iPads, laptops, and social interaction

By courtney in Other on July 05, 2010

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Last week I was lucky enough to go along to Foo Camp in Sebastopol, California. ‘Foo’ stands for ‘Friends of O’Reilly’, and Foo Camp is a yearly gathering of about 250 people (largely from the web and technology fields) at the O’Reilly Media headquarters. Run unconference-style, the weekend is a chance for people and ideas to mix and mingle, in hopes of producing those magical moments of realisation and inspiration.

Foo Camp is also a terrific chance to see a whole bunch of alpha geeks in their natural environment. And one of the most interesting trends evident at the event – as Linda Stone noted – was that laptops seemed to have disappeared in favour of iPads and smartphones.

What was interesting about this, for me, was the different tone an iPad brings to a group interaction. In meetings or gatherings, laptops form walls between people. Keys clack away noisily. Whatever the person behind the laptop is doing – work or play – is hidden and solitary. In this sense, the laptop is something of a dis-connecting tool.

In contrast, the way I saw people using the iPad was more like a menu or a map or a comic – something to be freely passed around, used by a couple of people at once. iPhones are similar, but they’re still more like sharing around a work tool – a practical act. The iPad doesn’t strike me as a work tool at all. When people use it, they seem either relaxed or immersed; if the laptop is a wall, then the iPad is a pool – something to dive down into. Or as Matt Jones observes, a magic table. Writing about the experience of playing Marble Mixer on the iPad, he notes that it’s a ‘simple game, well-executed’, which ‘sings’ when your friends join in:

Beautiful. Simple. But also – amazing and transformative!

We’re all playing with a magic surface!

When we’re not concentrating on our marbles, we’re looking each other in the eye – chuckling, tutting and cursing our aim – and each other.

There’s no screen between us, there’s a magic table making us laugh. …

It shows that the iPad can be a media surface to share, rather than a proscenium to consume through alone.

When I talked about the laptop phenomenon with Rowan Simpson, he mentioned a blog post he’d written a few years back about the Amish approach to technology, based on this 1999 Wired article by Howard Rheingold. As Rheingold writes:

Amish settlements have become a cliché for refusing technology. Tens of thousands of people wear identical, plain, homemade clothing, cultivate their rich fields with horse-drawn machinery, and live in houses lacking that basic modern spirit called electricity. But the Amish do use such 20th-century consumer technologies as disposable diapers, in-line skates, and gas barbecue grills. Some might call this combination paradoxical, even contradictory. But it could also be called sophisticated, because the Amish have an elaborate system by which they evaluate the tools they use; their tentative, at times reluctant use of technology is more complex than a simple rejection or a whole-hearted embrace. What if modern Americans could possibly agree upon criteria for acceptance, as the Amish have? Might we find better ways to wield technological power, other than simply unleashing it and seeing what happens? What can we learn from a culture that habitually negotiates the rules for new tools?

When choosing whether to adopt new technology, the Amish ask: will it bring us together, or draw us apart? When someone sits down in a group and flips open a laptop, it immediately disconnects them.  At Foo Camp, the absence of laptops seemed to bring people together. At the same time, people using iPads seemed no less connected to what was going on – logically – than people using pen and paper.

Am I – once something of a doubting Thomas – now a convert? No. I still don’t think I need an iPad, unless my future holds a lot of travelling that I don’t currently know about. But I am really excited to see how iPads get used in places like classrooms and museums, and how we all exploit their ability to draw people together.