I have this tendency to think that multitasking with emails and such during meetings only became rampant with the introduction of laptops. Before, I thought, one could at best daydream. I was wrong. Reading a book of British history, I ran across this account of the British government during World War I – hardly an affair one could safely ignore. And yet they did, starting with the Prime Minister.
… as the cabinet talks went on, covering munitions, strategy in the Mediterranean and the possibility of prohibition, the prime minister was distracted, as he often was. He was writing to the twenty-eight-year-old woman with whom he had been deeply in love for three years. He wrote to her most days, and sometimes several times a day, letters crammed with gossip and, though from a sixty-three-year-old man, as wildly passionate as any from a brimming youth. Meanwhile, as [Prime Minister] Asquith was scribbling with only one ear on the cabinet debate, a few feet away another minister was also writing. Edwin Montagu had long been one of Asquith’s most trusted supporters and now, still in his mid-thirties, had recently been brought into the cabinet. …. He too was only half paying attention to the cabinet debate. In fact, he too was writing a love letter: “My very dear one, I have never received, I need not tell you, a letter so thrilling and delicious as yours this morning. God bless you for it!” And his letter was to the same woman as the prime minister’s letter.
Montagu did not just describe his affection. He described the cabinet meetings themselves, sharing details that confirmed suspicions of the time. He signed off another letter,
Yours very disjointedly and disturbedly (Winston [Churchill, at the time just another minister, not yet prime] is gassing all the time) …
It has only been a century. In light of that, perhaps it makes sense that little has changed.
The book is Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain.