In the days of the Wild West -- at least the West according Clint Eastwood and Hollywood -- the pinnacle of a challenge was the high-noon, quick-draw showdown. "Let's do it then, high noon, tomorrow." And two men, starting back-to-back, would count fifteen paces and turn around to fire at each other. Things would be settled; results would be final.
Today's quick draw doesn't have quite the same drama and stakes as Colt pistols and cowboys. It has moved from the quick finger on the trigger to the quick thumb on the smart phone to win a digital sparring contest in search of facts or verification. Now, allow me to explain:
There used to be a time when you could go to have a lunch or dinner with someone and you could have, well, lunch or dinner. During that lunch or dinner you could reasonably expect uninterrupted conversation. Such Mad Men-like days are long over, just as the concept of it being rude to bring a cell phone or BlackBerry to a dinner is so early 1990s. The quick message peek, the quick text, and the occasional answering of an incoming call seem increasingly acceptable, even expected. This is not even to mention Tweeting out real-time doings and checking in with Four Square. One of my closest friends, a partner at one of the most respected venture firms, recently remarked that in the Valley (the Silicon one) it is almost considered impolite NOT to let your guest text, call, message, tweet, check in or whatever during a meal or meeting. While I may be as guilty as anyone of trying to sneak a glance at new messages or discretely thumb an under-the-table text during a dinner, I am feeling the need for us to return to the concept of a natural conversation, uninterrupted by technology. (More on that in a bit.)
Conversations today are constantly hijacked by digital fact-checkers. Every fact or statement, it seems, must be checked or augmented in real time with at-our-fingertips online information. We no longer trust each other to come up with good-enough facts or allow each other add colorful embellishment to our stories. Let me give a recent example to make my point. Over lunch the other day, I shared a story with my colleagues -- the surreal experience of being accidentally given a presidential suite at a Four Seasons Hotel. "This was an amazing room, probably 3000+ square feet with over-the-top appointments everywhere," I said. No more than two minutes after making the statement, an associate checked on his BlackBerry the size of the presidential suite, correcting me that it was closer to 2000 square feet.
What happened to natural conversations, those based on what is already in our heads, unburdened by verification? As the fast food movement has seen an opposing slow food movement take hold and shape, I predict we'll soon see a similar desire for putting down for a moment all the "information enhancements" that come with mobile, digital-sparring tools.
Even those of us who fund, embrace, and love technology may want to push for this, because the free flow of ideas is more important to us than technology. While precision and perfection are important when it comes to raising funds or closing a deal, big ideas don't thrive amid constant critique and an obsessive focus on the minutia. When we want innovation, we must focus on open and free thinking and the storytelling that often accompanies it.
This article first appeared on Harvard Business Publishing on July 2, 2010.
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