Thursday, 14 May 2009

The joys of a silent keyboard

I went to a conference recently on Technology for Health Systems Strengthening (THeSyS). Not a huge conference, about 30 people altogether. (Great conference - really enjoyed it.) There was the usual request to turn off mobile phones, but I noticed that several other people didn't so I didn't either. That suited me because I was able to use my WAP connection to twitter and text from the conference to various people.

This post is partly about manners, partly about psychology and partly about technology. Manners first. I knew I was OK in a sense because my phone is set not to make any noise. Texts arrive silently, and phone calls are set to vibrate. Other people don't have that, and apparently don't know how to set their phones to silent for the duration of the conference, so we did get a couple of interruptions from quirkily individual ring tones.

I continued to work on the assumption that my phone was OK, and I sent a series of tweets during the two days of the conference. You can find them in my Twitterstream.

I was recently at another conference where one of my fellow delegates was using his computer to microblog from the conference. Fair enough, but he said afterwards he thought it was acceptable because he was typing quietly. I was sitting four seats away from him and the noise of his keyboard was enough to distract me from what the speakers were saying (combined with poor acoustics and speakers who mumbled a fair bit...) He seemed to take exception to being told that. I think part of the issue here is that people don't hear their own noise - what's quiet to the creator can be quite a nuisance to somebody else. But it points up the need for an etiquette of conferencing.

I noticed by the same token that once I was using my mobile phone this way, I became a lot more tolerant of other people's. When other people's go off in meetings I usually find it a complete wind up. In fact I don't go into the quiet carriage on train journeys, because they're never actually quiet. There is always a succession of idiots who don't care what noise they make or haven't noticed that it's a quiet carriage, and that makes my blood boil so much that it's not worth it. Not all phone users are like that, but there is a sufficient minority who really don't care about other people to make it difficult for all of us. But this time I minded a lot less. I almost completely forgave the mangled sound of REM. I guess that it was infrequent enough and gentle enough not to interrupt the flow of the conference. And I was involved as well, so not only could I not complain, I didn't actually want to.

Those two experiences have set me wondering about what to do next. I was intending to buy a netbook to do my mobile computing on. I had thought I might continue to use my phone for conferences, but it's quite clunky. Its chief benefit is that using it is silent (as opposed to just "quiet"). But texting takes an age. I have an HTC TyTn, with either a stylus or a full, but minute, keyboard. I can use either with facility but both take a while. And connectivity is often a pain. I lost count of the number of times I rebooted it at THeSyS just to try to get a connection again. This may have distracted me from the business of the conference - I don't think it did much as I have 13 pages of notes. So I have begun the search for a computer with a silent keyboard. Not many of those about - maybe there's a gap in the market there.

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