Jeff Veen has posted regarding something I've pondered myself... Is anyone listening? WiFi and the new ADD (see also Stopdesign | Speaking and wifi at events which responds).
I've seen how much of a boon laptops can be at a conference - a small group of dedicated scribes repeating the flow of presentations out to an IRC channel, taking a small group to a global audience. It's not exactly a new idea, but the reality is that all the "global village" crap never really came true. It's nice to see real, honest connections being made; although it was amusing when the keynote speaker fielded a question from her home town after travelling halfway across the world to speak at the event!
It was interesting that it took user buy-in combined with one of the oldest, more bare-bones internet technologies: IRC. No video streaming, no multimedia, just text. Suddenly people are slipping into their net identities, too - you have their business card, but right now they're on your screen with their chosen handle. Geeks are like cats. They have their everyday name, then they have their real name.... :)
If you focus on the speaker and their content, having a wifi-connected laptop becomes a way to enrich the experience. You can view their presentation slides at your own pace, browse the websites they're discussing, post questions and discuss things with other attendees without talking over the speaker. Plus, for those people with a fear of public speaking, being able to participate without 'facing the mic' includes people who would otherwise sit quietly and feel marginalised.
The flip side is when people stop listening and start playing games or whatever. That's probably ok if they zone out and stay zoned; but Jeff gives an example of what can happen:
[S]omeone from the audience asked a question almost verbatim to one asked just five minutes before. There was a bit of nervous laughter, and I tried to be graceful...
Of course, it's just more obvious than someone zoning out and doodling in the margins of their note paper. Does wifi really increase the problem, or does it simply let people go from zoned-out to alternatively-focussed? Would they lose focus so easily if they didn't have all the shiny distractions of the 'net ready to hand? Probably not actually.
In general, we have become very used to multitasking, fast switches and interruptions. We take phone calls, emails, instant messages; regardless of what we were just doing, now we're focussing on something else. Perhaps wifi ADD is just a symptom, not a cause.