Tony Karrer started a topic on improving conferences at his blog, and Mark Oehlert follows up citing an experience someone had with WiFi at a conference. In the quote, the experience described is attendees locked into their laptops and virtual communities, not joining in the live conference community. The concern is whether having WiFi at a conference is a bane or a boon. My perspective is rooted in an anecdote.
A number of years ago, I talked to some folks at a med school that had totally wired labs: there were power points (er, you know, plugs) and internet connections at every seat, cameras, monitors, etc. The faculty were concerned that the students could be sending email, or day-trading, or all sorts of heinous activities instead of listening. I made the seemingly-obvious comment that if the lectures weren’t perceived as valuable by the audience, they wouldn’t attend (whether mentally or physically).
This did not go over well. They didn’t seem to get that if you took away the internet, they could still play solitaire, and if you took away the computers they could still doodle. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker on horticulture, you can lead learners to learning, but you can’t make them think.
You’ve got to be presenting value! If you are, there’re great reasons to have WiFi: first of all they can ignore the WiFi, or they can look up things you cite that they’re not familiar with, they can share notes, they can blog the comments, etc. I recall Jay Cross blogging someone else blogging a conference (or vice-versa). For that matter, if a small slice of their attention helps them solve a work problem quietly, they may gain more than if they had to leave the room to take/make a call. If you aren’t presenting valuable content, then there’s another good reason for WiFi: to give them something to do besides listen.
So I guess I’m fully on the side of WiFi at venues . If someone can’t wean themselves from their virtual world at a conference, they’re wasting their own money and time, if you’re not wasting it for them.