“Are you having an affair?” my wife asked sardonically but not seriously. I lay next to her on a hotel bed during a family vacation in Austin, Texas. We were taking a few days away from home in St. Louis, where we live and she is a microbiology professor, to visit friends and spend “quality time” together with our daughter. But I was awake at five o’clock in the morning, keying a message into my BlackBerry, its screen dimmed. I had hoped not to disturb her, but I hoped in vain. She was not concerned who I was writing to, but rather what I was writing with. Once again, that seductive “wireless email solution for mobile professionals” was coming between us.
The BlackBerry appeared in my life about four years ago. Now I can’t imagine living without it. It is my constant companion, my connection to friends and colleagues, my procrastination enabler when I want to distract myself from actual work. It is also, I fear, my master, having quietly insinuated itself into my life. When my three-year-old daughter pleads with me to put my BlackBerry down during dinner—“Daddy, stop that”—I see the thin but sharp edge of a harsh truth. But I can’t help myself. Soon I am glancing at the tiny screen, hoping she doesn’t notice as she downs her daily dose of mac and cheese. How did I come to this, ignoring my daughter’s pleas just to glimpse the latest email?
The name BlackBerry lodged in my mind when I first heard it. I don’t know why; perhaps a premonition, perhaps the catchy name, which comes indirectly from the shape of its keys. While working at the State Department shortly after 9/11, I remember reading how the World Trade Center attack knocked out cell phone and BlackBerry service. I figured that BlackBerry was some special communications system for the masters of the universe on Wall Street. I gave the matter little thought until the U.S. government issued me my first BlackBerry when I was working at the National Security Council. The BlackBerry’s combined cell phone and wireless email (unclassified) proved a godsend for staffers who needed to be connected around the clock. The ability to receive email from my government account was also liberating, saving trips into the office on weekends and allowing an escape for dinner every once in a while. When BlackBerries appeared in government, having one became a bureaucratic status symbol, a sign that you “mattered” or, more accurately, that you worked for someone who did. They still are, as I listened during a recent cocktail party to Foreign Service Officers share notes on who was privileged enough to have one in Embassy Cairo and Embassy Beijing. But the private sector moves faster. When I entered the management consulting world, the BlackBerry’s cachet was already eroding. At my current employer, BlackBerries were originally the exclusive preserve of partners; by the time I started in 2005, every foot soldier in the struggle to make the world safe for the American consumer was armed with one to ensure constant “connectivity.”
Now I am indeed constantly connected, not so much by the device itself as through a series of BlackBerry rituals. I use it as my alarm clock, so that I can keep it next to me at night. In government, no news was usually good news. Now when I wake up, I look forward to seeing my BlackBerry’s pulsating red light—flashing once every three seconds—that signals new email arrived overnight. Perhaps a message from colleague working late, a note from a friend in the Middle East, or just a news update. It doesn’t matter. My first action of the day is reading email on my BlackBerry, and it is the last, as well. The BlackBerry helps me feel close to friends, informed, part of the mix. But it also means that I never seem to escape fully from the trivial stress of work.
I have convinced myself that I’m not an addict, yet. I can stop any time. I reassure myself that I’m not as bad off as some colleagues. When the BlackBerry system failed for about 12 hours in April 2007, I didn’t start twitching randomly like an alcoholic in need of a drink. It was a welcome break, I told myself, from the barrage of emails about meetings, deadlines and PowerPoint presentations. But I know how I feel when instantaneous communication resumes after a period of deprivation. Airline flights are a BlackBerry-unfriendly occupational hazard. I love turning on my BlackBerry immediately upon landing, whether in Chicago, London or Amman, and watching the wireless network signal-strength bar graph climb and the emails start to flow in. I look for news from my wife, a note from a friend, a list-serve report to read in the cab. Ah, connected again, and the rush of virtual speed returns.
A conceit of our age is that the complexities, interconnections and velocity of our life are “unprecedented.” They aren’t, at least relatively speaking. Quite famously, Henry Adams felt “the continuity snap” around the turn of the 20th century. In his Education, he relates having “found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900 [in Paris], his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.” And indeed, save for a few interruptions during the tumultuous 20th century, the acceleration Adams experienced continues today, as does the Janus-faced consequence he described.
The BlackBerry and its ilk are logical extensions of the telegraph, telephone and wireless radio of Adams’ era. They enable us as individuals not just to communicate and circulate information more rapidly, but also induce us to slice our lives into smaller and smaller increments of time. We are then expected to fill these ever-shrinking slices of attention in order to be fully “productive” and “connected.” We live in byte-sized periods of minutes and even seconds. We push ourselves to our cognitive limits of how fast we can process information.
Personal anecdata leave no doubt in my mind that BlackBerries can increase productivity and efficiency. A cab ride becomes an opportunity to communicate with my team, a request for information can be answered in minutes, meetings can be coordinated on the fly as never before. In a more systematic survey for Research in Motion (RIM), the BlackBerry’s maker, the international survey-based market research firm Ipsos Reid concluded that the average BlackBerry user converts about one hour of downtime into productive work every day. Even if that is an optimistic estimate, it adds up to a lot of hours. Ipsos Reid estimated the value of the 250 hours per year of “recovered downtime”, the immediate response capability, and the improved efficiency across teams to be worth more than $30,000 per BlackBerry user per year.
But everything in moderation, the philosophers tell us. Many BlackBerry users go too far. Some go way too far. The attractions of the constant stream of information become too tempting, checking email a compulsion. The “BlackBerry Prayer” is a new ritual before many meetings: heads down, desperately checking email one last time before the services begin. “Continuous partial attention”, as consultant Linda Stone labels it, is now a feature of our multitasking society. Attention spans shorten; we constantly scan. John Ratey of Harvard coined the term “acquired attention deficit disorder” to describe what happens when people fall prey to constant digital stimulation from devices like the BlackBerry and become bored without it. Ratey’s term is clever, but some actually consider such maladies real addictions, requiring real therapy.
Whether a full-blown addiction or not, some BlackBerry users report feeling phantom vibrations on their hip (where they usually wear their devices) when they have been deprived of a message for too long. Other BlackBerry users become so compulsive that they injure themselves through overuse—so-called BlackBerry Thumb. But every malady is an opportunity in our society: Hyatt spas announced last year they would offer “BlackBerry Balm” hand massages to relieve the strains on the weary road warrior.
I am thankfully not there yet, but I’m worried—and not just about my thumb. The dirty secret is that too much connectivity may actually make us stupider and less efficient, not to mention dangerous, as when people check their messages while driving (something I am embarrassed to admit I have done). A study for Hewlett-Packard concluded that a person’s IQ can temporarily fall by as many as ten points in a day when under constant message and information assault. The New York Times recently reported that a study of Microsoft employees revealed that it took an average of 15 minutes for someone to return to serious mental work—like writing a report or essay—after an interruption by email or instant messaging. We can all admit it: Griping to a friend in real-time about your boss’ bad behavior is much more enjoyable than concentrating on building an Excel model. The costs to the U.S. economy of such interruptions may reach $650 billion per year, according to Jonathan Spira, an analyst with Basex, a business and technology research firm.
BlackBerries bear other risks as well. BlackBerry rudeness—checking messages while someone is speaking to you or during a meeting—is pervasive. One partner I know turns his BlackBerry over to someone else at the start of a meeting because he knows he cannot resist the temptation to check his email incessantly (and it’s true: He can’t). Another hands his over to his wife at a designated time every evening. These are tactics Thomas Schelling once described as “self-command” or “enforcing rules on oneself”: We know that sometime in the future we will be tempted to do something that we judge now to be against our self-interest, so we devise ways of tying ourselves to the mast as Ulysses did when confronting the Sirens. I haven’t yet mastered “self-command.” That worries me, too.
The ease and omnipresence of the BlackBerry may also encourage us, as with email in general, to over-share information and thus to bury each other in data we don’t need and can’t use. In other words, the spread of instantaneous communication with small handheld devices is shaping not only how we communicate, but what we communicate. Here I am thoroughly convinced that more is lost than gained. BlackBerry users become habituated to the small screen—mine fits ten lines of text, about sixty to seventy words—and expect that information will be squeezed into this box to facilitate a quick-reading lifestyle. Patience wears thin and attention wavers when they have to use their thumb to scroll too many times to read through a message. This compression inevitably affects what can be communicated, and begins to color expectations for all communications. While economy of words is a virtue, sometimes a message should go beyond three or four bullet points; sometimes life really is messy, complicated, and takes time and effort to describe.
A leader of one of my teams related how in the past few years our firm transitioned from a voicemail culture, where teams provided updates to partners via phone messages, to a BlackBerry culture. He lamented the demise of voice mail because such messages can be a bit longer than the few bullets permitted by the BlackBerry screen and, equally important, a voice can convey through tempo and intonation more nuance and mood than any truncated text, especially an exceedingly concise one. Listening seems to require more focus and attention than a quick click and glance at a BlackBerry. Composing a succinct voice mail message to update a partner was a required exercise in my initial training back in 2005. That exercise has since been eliminated from the curriculum.
Of course, I may be overly sensitive on this point. During my last semi-annual review, I was advised that to be a more effective consultant I should improve my communication skills and, specifically, “continue to push for synthesis and economy of words—particularly tailored to likely media (i.e., BlackBerry).” I’m already nearly addicted, and now I am forced to focus effort on becoming more effective at my near addiction?
I appreciate how my BlackBerry enables me to stay connected, even more than regular email, with friends scattered around the globe. I have composed many quick notes to friends in the Middle East while riding in a cab to Lambert St. Louis Airport before dawn on Mondays. A recent morning’s email brought a message from a good friend now based in Cairo, as we coordinated seeing each other during her leave back in the States. At the same time, however, the power to connect can reinforce isolation by perpetuating virtual communities at the expense of forming real ones. Since leaving government, for instance, I have not invested much effort in developing a network of friends in my new hometown, St. Louis. Instead, I remain connected to those with whom I shared similar work experiences in academia, government and now the private sector. So I don’t feel much connection to where I live now, other than to my wife and daughter. Whenever I’m alone—whether at home or on the road—I always have the easy option of looking down and clicking a few buttons in order to avoid the tough act of face-to-face conversation—actually listening to someone new and unfamiliar.
I am still in the minority. By June 2007, there were more than nine million BlackBerry subscribers worldwide, some five million in the United States. Our ranks are growing every day, however. More than a million subscribers joined during a three-month period in early 2007, and there is no end in sight. The BlackBerry and its competitors are spreading instantaneous, “24/7”, handheld, combined data and voice connectivity around the world. They have become symbols of 21st-century technology and globalization. Fittingly, the editors of Webster’s New World College Dictionary selected “Crackberry” as the 2006 “Word of the Year.” As Editor-in-Chief Michael Agnes explained, “The word represents all handheld devices, the technology culture change we have gone through in that there is an addictive nature for people to get and give information on the go.”
I do not know whether RIM and BlackBerry will continue to lead the market. BlackBerry is now attempting to master the difficult transition from elite product to mass audience. The environment is incredibly competitive, with Apple’s iPhone, Palm’s Treo smartphone, and Google and Yahoo all offering wireless email alternatives to RIM’s. The ultimate irony would be if another group of innovators exploits the power of BlackBerries to coordinate their market coup against RIM. But whatever particular company and technology triumph, the communication power inaugurated by BlackBerry will stay with us, for better and for worse.
Meanwhile, I’m left with my deepening addiction. I am feeling antsy. I should check my BlackBerry. Or perhaps I should do something I haven’t done in months: turn it off, and assemble my family for a slow stroll down by the Arch along banks of the Mississippi in old St. Louis.