Earlier this year, Convene sent our newsletter readers a one-question survey: Should we ask attendees to put away their phones? Of three possible responses, 38 percent of respondents said “yes.” The exact same percentage chose the response: “No, if our content is engaging enough, people will pay attention.” The remainder, 24 percent, went with, “It might be a good idea, but good luck.”
When we shared the results with Liza Kindred, a Brooklyn, New York–based entrepreneur, author, speaker, and founder of Mindful Technology, she laughed. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that a simple majority of people would prefer to not have phones around,” she said. “We’re really moving in a direction where a lot of people are starting to understand the negative influences of technology on a personal level.”
Among them are many of the same people who designed the technology in the first place. Kindred pointed to a recent New York Times series which described panic among Silicon Valley parents over the negative effect that time spent with screens has been shown to have on children’s attention and cognition. “Silicon Valley knows exactly how addictive and detrimental technology is,” Kindred said, “and so, on a personal level, they’re taking extreme steps to keep it out of their lives and the lives of the people that they love. At the same time, they’re continuing to build technology that’s really intrusive, invasive, and addictive.
“I used to say that technology was neutral and it’s how we use it that makes it good or bad,” Kindred said. “I don’t believe that anymore. I still think that technology can be built in a way that’s good for people. It’s just that a lot of it isn’t being built that way right now.”
For 20 years, Kindred worked in fashion and technology as a consultant in wearable tech, and for the last decade, she has pursued a personal mindfulness meditation practice. “After doing both of those things for a number of years,” Kindred said, “I realized that the technology that I was helping my clients build was going against the kind of world that I wanted to live in.” At Mindful Technology, she helps clients build human-centered technology that creates, rather than interrupts, human connection and focus.
As a frequent speaker and workshop facilitator, Kindred considers the concept of mindful technology to be particularly relevant when it comes to events. “What’s true about all technology — but particularly about technology for events and conferences — is that it should be built in such a way to help people to engage more deeply with the content,” she said “and to connect them with other people who are physically in the room.”
That’s not the goal of most apps, where the measure of success is creating apps that are used as frequently and for as long as possible, she said. “The question becomes: How can I allow technology to be a part of an event and how can I also make sure that my own goals are being met and technology is not getting in the way?”
Kindred’s answer to that question of whether phones should be put away is one that we didn’t think to add to our list of possible responses: sometimes. Here are her recommendations.
Say no to notifications. Most notifications on mobile apps are sent out “willy-nilly,” she said. “They’re abused all the time and can get in the way of deep engagement.” If you use notifications, “be very thoughtful and careful not to interrupt people when they should or could be doing something more important.”
Say yes to match-ups. An app that connects people with shared interests is a good example of technology that facilitates connection, she said. “People wouldn’t necessarily find each other without it, because a lot of these events are really big. But if it could actually bring them physically together where they can make some eye contact and have some actual conversation,” Kindred said, “that’s super helpful.”
Safeguard interaction. A lot of studies have shown that the presence of a screen “really changes the level of focus,” she said. “So if you’re doing a workshop or a breakout or a deep dive, I think it’s crucial not to have screens that are distracting from that. We’ve done a lot of events where we have phone boxes where people are gently asked to put their phones away and then, maybe there can be some kind of reward for keeping it put away.”
Leverage crowds. It’s a different story if there are thousands of people watching a keynote speaker, she said. “That’s probably a room where you can’t stop the screens, so maybe that’s the time that you would encourage tweeting, maybe remind people of the hashtag. If someone is sharing knowledge from a conference, and people who are interested in that subject but aren’t able to attend are able to get some of those little nuggets of information, that can be good — good to spread knowledge and learning and, of course, it can be good for the conference.”
What about FOMO — should event organizers use technology to exploit the fear of missing out? “Oh, it drives me crazy that people do that,” Kindred said. “Anything that is causing people to have negative emotions, I believe is manipulative and really harmful.”