There is a larger question here . . . having to do with attention span and ability to focus on complex problems—or even non-complex ones, such as driving or having a civilized conversation with someone next to you. This is what the avout find so alarming about the cellphone-like devices used by people in the world of the book.I asked Stephenson whether he felt that cell phones in our own world might represent a wrong turn, technologically speaking. He said:
I couldn't live without mine. But the etiquette and the interface are lagging behind the technology. Introduction of new technology often leads to disruptions in manners that can take a generation or more to play out. We're in one of those awkward times now.He raises an interesting point. It's possible that we're living through the awkward adolescence of a gadget that in its present incarnation basically sucks no matter how you make it. Maybe there's just no way, with our current technology, to manufacture a good mobile. Maybe it will, as Stephenson suggests, take a generation or more before we aren't constantly pissed off by our own tech. What's intriguing is that Stephenson is saying mobiles suck not just because of their interfaces, but because of how people act when they use mobiles. Of course, how people act with cell phones has everything to do with the interface. You have to stick them against your face, or put some weirdass Cyberman-looking thing in your ear. So your body language, when you're on a mobile, makes you immediately seem rude to anyone around you. Plus, most people still use audible ringers (as opposed to vibration), so it is essentially impossible to have a mobile without inviting a noisy, irritating interruption. What that means is your mobile doesn't just interrupt your train of thought or conversation — it interrupts everyone's within earshot. So the mobile as we know it is perhaps one of the worst attention-shattering devices imaginable. The question is, how would you make a mobile that retains all the goodness of convenience but eliminates the rudeness and interruptions? Or is the mobile just a fundamentally broken technology that will eventually die out?