Toy-day for the big kids
By Reetta Meriläinen
"Toy-day": the six-year-olds in the lowest grades of Finnish comprehensive school probably still have it. It is the day when the kids can bring a favourite toy to school, and everyone plays for a while.
Perhaps we need to introduce toy-day into the workplace, too.
Once a week (or once a fortnight, or once a month), the staffers would bring to work/to a meeting all the portable work-related gadgets they can. At least one mobile phone, a Communicator*, a palm computer, a laptop, and whatever else comes to hand.
Everyone around the meeting table could then send SMS messages to their heart's content, talk on the phone, browse through their mailbox, update their schedule calendars, post to a thread in an online discussion group, and bang out Powerpoint presentations.
Any possible business of the meetings would be dealt with on the terms of the games being played.
Another alternative might be the sort of working culture in which the surplus items listed above are kept in cases and pockets. They would be pulled out only when needed.
I am sure I am not the only person whose ears have begun to give off puffs of steam at the extra-curricular activities of meeting participants.
What is the point of a meeting where those taking part spend the entire time reading e-mail, tapping out SMS messages, leaping up to answer their phone, or fiddling with their PDAs. The most flagrant offenders are actually engaged in real-time online discussions one with another across the table, about the matters - or the attendees - of the meeting. Idle digital babbling. Nobody opens his or her mouth to talk about the business of the meeting.
If it is the intention that significant decisions are to be taken at meetings, then I guess it is better that people's interest does not veer off to external matters.
Then again, if the meeting is merely a democratic ritual of sorts, it is really of no consequence how the time is spent. Except for the fact that a great many people regard their time as a scant natural resource. In such circumstances it is of some import how and to what end it is used up.
For the sake of clarity I should perhaps point out that in no shape or form do I frown upon the tools and gadgets mentioned. On the contrary, I like them. They are handy and useful. What I do object to is the undisciplined behaviour in meetings that is made easy by these devices.
I do wonder just a little whether people escape from dull reality into gadget-games. I mean, for the most part that is what meetings are - dull.
Or is it a question of a more profound disorder, namely our inability to be present?
In the modern world, a person can be reached from anywhere. He or she can be pin-pointed, wherever he happens to be. A person can be in contact everywhere, but is he actually present anywhere? It may be that "intensity of being" has been replaced by the "spread" and "breadth" of being, which has diluted being down to nothingness.
It could be that the generic human sense of hubris involves a false belief in our divine omnipresence - the world has, after all, shrunk through advances in technology. Nevertheless, humans remain incapable of being in two places at once. And it now, alas, appears as though a person cannot any longer even be in the one place where he is physically situated.
A couple sits in a restaurant. A candle flickers on the table between them. Wine sparkles in stemmed glasses. There is the scent of food. Both individuals speak into their mobile phones, but not to each other.
One is calling work, the other is talking to one of her girlfriends. It is possible to ascertain this, as both are speaking loudly. Ultimately it is hard to say who is meeting whom here.
It is a touch scary to ponder a world in which speech and other noise goes on, but in which nobody is actually present.
Intensive being looks to be quite a skilled discipline.
One could learn something from children. A child can become focused and absorbed for hours on end in what it is doing, if the doing is absorbing enough, if it is pleasurable, and if it provides an intellectual stimulus. Even a "lively" child knows how to concentrate when there is a good reason to do so. The same goes for us overgrown kids.
If heads or feet are overly restless, then there is cause to look into one's life and into the mirror. Before reaching for the toys.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 29.10.2005
The writer is editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat
* Note: For the uninitiated, the Communicator is the generic name for a series of Nokia smartphones (the 9xxx series), slightly more bulky than a normal mobile, but equipped with an ASCII keyboard and a largish LCD screen inside. Basically, it is a phone with PDA (Personal Data Assistant) capabilities.
REETTA MERILÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat