High tech is great, but don’t let it over-rule human needs, writes Ian Whitworth.

When I was a junior AV technician in the era when George Clooney had a mullet, most conferences would open with an inspirational video, recorded on some kind of magnetic tape, and it would always be about The Incredible Pace of Change.

Sometimes it would be called The Challenge of Change or whatever, but these videos always showed the same timeline of mankind’s technology achievements throughout the ages. Slow change for a few thousand years, wheel, printing press, toasted sandwich maker, then just in the last decade OMG INSANE LEVELS OF CHANGE!

The clear message being: get with this new technology or you’ll be unemployable to a Rolf Harris level. And this was before the internet.

What The Futurists Say

Now the talk of techno-change is relentless, with an app to replace every job. Marauding gangs of hipster futurists scare the daylights out of your delegates with revelations of goggles that can read people’s minds and how you can 3D-print yourself a new face.

Technological change is generally awesome. I’m writing this column on a plane, having just finished editing a complex video that’ll be published from the airport lounge wireless. A year ago it would have been a studio job. Technical tip: throw your current laptop away immediately and get one with a solid state drive, it’s breathtakingly fast and doesn’t barbecue delicate body parts when it’s running on your lap.

The trap, though, is assuming that higher tech is always better. Sometimes you have to step back and ask: is this actually progress, or just tech for the sake of it?

What Damo Says

I’ve just been in Hobart with our speaker prep room maestro, Damo. He can wrangle several hundred speakers in a single conference, and they all love him, despite the fact that he looks like a UFC cage-fighter, which he is also training to be. I asked him about using .ftp uploads to make it easier for presenters, so all those presenters can load up their PowerPoint weeks before the conference. That seems like organisation at its finest.

Damo has tried it, and says a big No to uploads. It’s not that he doesn’t love high tech things. But he has a very clear understanding of how people actually behave in the real world.

He points out that speakers always change their presentations on the plane on the way to the conference, so their uploaded show gets deleted anyway. But that’s not the main reason he wants speakers to bring a USB stick. It’s because he insists on talking to them.

One In Ten Of You Have Gremlins

He found that if someone uploaded a show in advance, they felt that their work was done. So they felt they just needed to turn up five minutes before they walked on stage and all would be well: a potent recipe for disaster. Presenters didn’t know that they hadn’t included the fonts or video clips, or one of many other gremlins.

Coming to meet Damo takes a bit of extra time, but it means he can step through the whole show with you and check that everything’s OK. At least one in 10 needs his gremlin-snuffing skills. And Damo can talk you through the whole being-on-stage process. You’re more comfortable, so you present more confidently, which means a better conference overall.

There’s a general perception that new is always better, ‘…with just a click of a mouse!’ and so forth. But for meetings, an industry built on personal contact, sometimes the digital option creates a detachment that lessens the quality of the experience.

Why Creepy iPad Restaurants Died

Did you ever go to one of those restaurants that had an iPad on each table and your order got sent to the kitchen via wireless? Those restaurants are dead now, with good reason. Making customers bend their normal behaviour to suit your internal systems is a dangerous path in a field where customers want human contact. You see this with sales people who do their entire pitch via email with no actual conversation, then complain someone else undercut them.

What do you expect when you’ve made yourself a product vending machine, where the anonymous buyer just clicks until the price hits rock bottom?

Pretty much all the great successes in the tech sector weren’t built on pure technological superiority. Facebook, Twitter, and Stop Tony Meow, the current browser plug-in that replaces any picture of Tony Abbott with a random kitten – their success was built on new understandings of how people actually relate to each other via technology. Lose sight of the personal touch at your own risk. m

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-founder of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email – ian@scenechange.com.au