I had the chance to live a little differently the other week. The opportunity came with a three-hour gap between two meetings in the same part of London.

Normally I would head back to the office, 40 minutes away and do ‘proper’ work. Instead this time I decided to hang around, turn off the phone and sit in a coffee shop. For the first time in weeks I had time to think straight and felt wonderfully anonymous, an observer in my own city. I flicked through a book and sat in said cafe watching energetic kids harass their mother. Eventually I had a pint in the Eagle pub in Farringdon, sharing it with about six Guardian staffers out for a swift half from the paper’s office next door.

The main point was that I did different things – and had different thoughts – compared to those when glued to a telephone and attached to email.

They were good things, too. I worked out a plan of action on something that had been hanging over me, wrote a list of people to meet in the months ahead and sketched some ideas for a project that were better than the usual knee-jerk nonsense generated in a hectic office.

It also got me thinking about how we balance our virtual networking with our physical one. It highlighted some of the dangers we face as organisations blindly adopt more IT and encourage less physical interaction between people. Top of the list is a creeping neurosis about using technology to fill our time, without necessarily using that time well.

"Our increasing reliance on real-time communication has led many to resolve that if they don’t hear from someone on the day of a meeting, they assume that meeting is no longer happening"

Professor Stephen Rowland, University College London

Professor Stephen Rowland at University College London, who researches how different parties interact and interpret things in different ways, points first to a changing focus in how we interpret agreement. “Our increasing reliance on real-time communication has led many to resolve that if they don’t hear from someone on the day of a meeting, they assume that meeting is no longer happening.”

He argues that being able to constantly check and recheck, risks turning us into neurotics, who can no longer fix a date in the diary for a month ahead and then just turn up. “I don’t have a mobile phone,” he adds. “I am increasingly being stood up. People say: ‘Oh I couldn’t reach you so I assumed the meeting was cancelled’.”

Rowland points to a change in how we spend time between events.

“Time spent waiting is in short supply now as we are usually able to fill the time. For example, when someone is late for a meeting we cram in a phone call, check our email or work on a document.” He decries what he terms ‘the loss of disengaged time’, which he argues is an important source of creativity.

“If someone arrives early for a meeting now, they tend to get on their mobile, rather than sit and focus their ideas.”

One of the key things that suffers is our listening time. Blogging is a fine example of how easy it is to harness IT to throw down opinions, make a stand or build a profile.

No depth

Likewise, research is usually swift, with a quick Google check here and there. But both activities tend to lack much reflection. A colleague, Bill Abraham, fund raiser at the London School of Economics, recently remarked at how it was now frowned upon in the workplace to just sit reading printed material.

“If I am sitting interacting with my computer, that’s fine. But if I was to sit with the computer off, reading a printed document, people would think I was somehow skiving – or would ask if the system was down,” says Abraham. The trick, he argues, is to hold a pen in his hand and make annotations on the document.

This is technology dominance gone mad. It seems we are unwittingly creating a technology culture that is about input, rather than study and exploration.

A factor here could be a lack of established rules of virtual interaction – and very few organisations or individuals are equipped to understand how we make sense of this future. Take the Eagle pub. When we are in the pub, there are set ways that people engage with one another. We know what to expect, what is acceptable as an intrusion and what we have a right to do if interaction occurs outside of those rules. This language of engagement is one we have created over centuries of physical interaction.

Compare this to the way email is currently used to intrude on people. First, there is the ease of outreach and the currently muddled expectation of how people must respond. Expectations still vary widely. For example,

I tried recently to explain to my dad that I do not read all the emails he sends me – just the ones I think I need to – and he was horrified.

Second is the amount of virtual noise, lack of assumptions about what is and is not acceptable in electronic communication and our struggle to resolve how to deal with this.

"I tried recently to explain to my dad that I do not read all the emails he sends me – just the ones I think I need to – and he was horrified"

If those Guardian hacks had been harassed in that pub by 15 different individuals trying to sell them Viagra; handing out newsletters from Gartner and McKinsey; passing around flyers from low cost airlines and selling cut-price software, they would probably flee the place never to return. Instead, when we are out, people largely respect our privacy, appreciate we can hold only one conversation at a time and assess how amenable we would be to a discussion. The physical engagement creates limits and structure over what can be expected.

How the proportion of virtual versus physical engagement changes over time is something in which all of us should have a say.

So next time you get pressure to go digital at the expense of physical, tell your boss you constantly hear the line “it’s so nice to finally meet you” from people. Meeting up, being somewhere, having encounters, watching and absorbing are here to stay. And top of the hierarchy is being physically in front of someone.

When was the last time you heard anyone say, “it’s great to finally email you”?

No escape from technology
Wireless hotspots

Places where people come together but then look intensely at laptop computers. Similar to the experience of sitting on a bus full of people chattering into their mobile phones. Except that on the bus, people have a clear and consistent sense of the billing process involved.

Texting

Always a source of bewilderment for American colleagues who cannot believe how much time even the most unlikely Europeans can spend texting. It seems to have now infiltrated most age groups up to pensioner level. The only barrier to further expansion might be the baffling inability of mobile vendors to improve interface design.

Heathrow Express TV

Combining gushing earnestness with useless content (30 seconds of world weather followed by endless clips of water voles pattering in English streams). Clearly thought up as an alternative to landscaping the railway embankments through out Ealing and Hayes. Maybe that was deemed too expensive, so it was decided to distract travellers from the grim view by putting mobile mind candy on the telly instead.

Instant messaging

Its mind-blowing ability to interrupt seems to be neatly offset for many by its promise to help iron out day-to-day problems. Depending on your view, it allows spontaneous communication and closer interaction. Or it slowly erodes your concentration span until you appear to have overdosed on Pro Plus.

Taxi television

Seems to polarise opinion. Key factor is the lack of an ‘off’ switch. Seems to appeal to those who watch TV all day on Sunday, or those whose primary daily dilemma is whether to watch QVC or bid tv. For others it is a little like the experience of having one’s brain gradually expand and explode.

Satellite navigation

The rise of this technology is driven perhaps by British paranoia about looking like a kerb crawler and CCTV monitored red routes make it hard to stop and ask for help. The irony of spending £300 on getting directions highlights human addiction to gadget purchases above reading a £5 road atlas.

Vehicle tracking and tolling

The big news in the world of global intelligent transport systems (ITS) is, deep breath, London. The world’s most talented engineers and planners who look at ways IT helps us get about, are simply blown away by Ken Livingstone’s (and perhaps soon Alistair Darling’s) ability to put control into their hands through road charging.

If you do not believe it, look to ExCel in October, when they all gather for the ITS World Congress 2006. Politics, mixed with telematics, could go a long way.

Self-driving car

Surely not as impossible as it sounds. Current efforts such as the EU’s Cybercar and US Automated Highway System show the technology potential but liability issues and cost are holding things back.

Society’s distrust of technology and fears over who would be in control do not help. Mainstream drivers prefer the freedom to sit at a painted line, waiting for a coloured light to change. At least they can get on the phone to say they will be late.