Are there times when science shouldn’t be a conversation? When sitting quietly and listening is more important than joining in discussion?

As a self-confessed grumpy old man who is still eluded by the allure of Twitter, I was thrilled to recently see that I’m not alone, and patron saint Jon Stewart is thinking along the same lines. After the recent O’Reilly TOC conference, there were scores of articles talking about twittering during presentations, Joe Wikert for one noting, “I found myself listening to a speaker in one session while also reading the tweets from the others running simultaneously.” Which brings up the obvious question Stewart asks:

“Why aren’t you paying attention? There’s a reason they don’t allow cel phones in seventh grade classrooms.”

Is it really possible to pay detailed attention to a speaker while you’re simultaneously typing and reading and having a conversation with others? I find it incredibly annoying when sitting in a seminar with a colleague who won’t stop commenting or talking long enough for me to take in what the speaker is saying. There’s usually a reason why a particular person is asked to speak on a particular subject. Do we owe them the courtesy of listening to what they have to say, or are we evolving into such an ego-centric society that we must constantly force ourselves into the spotlight? Must everything be a conversation where every voice is heard, or are there some situations where it’s okay to let one person have the floor? Colin Robinson notes:

In an increasingly self-centered society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

I’m all for asking questions and debating a speaker’s results, but can’t you wait until they’re actually presented before doing so? If you’re going to spend the talk having a conversation with friends and checking your e-mail why even attend at all? Here’s an interesting look at a criminal law class where the professor banned laptops from the classroom. 71% felt it improved their concentration in class, 52% said it made the time in class more interesting, and 54% felt it increased their overall enjoyment of the class. Perhaps there’s merit in focus and attention after all.

Is what you have to say really so important that I can’t wait until the talk is over to hear it? Are your pithy thoughts more important than the speaker’s? Are your comments even relevant if you’re not listening to what’s being said? If we’re having a conversation instead of listening, why are we even here, shouldn’t we be in the bar doing this?

Are tools like Twitter really an improvement, or do they just pander to our increasingly short attention spans, our laziness (more on this in my next rant) and our need to be the center of attention at all times?