The Cigarette of This Century

Notes on the rise and fall of the Blackberry, and those technologies that shape us

thiscenturycigarette.jpg

Reuters.

In January 1995, a year and a half before Hotmail launched the world's first web-based email service, a landmark California law banning smoking in most public places went into effect. Back then smoking was already on the decline, especially in California, but it was probably still more common than having an email account.

The change was most immediately noticeable in restaurants. No longer would a host or hostess ask "Smoking or non-?" before seating you. It sounds silly today--most Americans bristle at the idea of smoking while eating, and many restaurants in states without explicit bans have chosen to prohibit smoking for social rather than legal reasons. Smokers are still around, of course, but now they excuse themselves to the courtyard or the alley, where they gather in groups like outcasts. In fact, they are outcasts, forced to commune with their habit and one another in private.

It used to be different. At its peak in 1965, over 40% of the U.S. population smoked, compared to less than half that figure today. The rise of cigarette smoking took less time to evolve than it has to decline. By the turn of the twentieth century, the cigarette's small size and cheap cost made it readily available to most industrial populations. And thanks to milder tobaccos, its smoke could be inhaled more readily, making smoking a more comfortable and pleasurable affair. The cigarette is a technology, after all, subject to the same forces of innovation, adoption, and decline as the personal computer or the mobile phone. As Marshall McLuhan observed, the cigarette enhances a sense of poise and calm by giving the smoker a prop, reducing social awkwardness. It retrieves tribal practices of ritual and security and obsolesces loneliness by giving everyone something in common to do, such as asking for a light.

Five short years after California banned smoking in restaurants, connectivity seemed essential, and more and more work got done by email. The technology services company I worked for at the time bought me a Blackberry 957, the taller version of Research In Motion (RIM)'s pager-shaped wireless email device. Back then, a Blackberry could read email or navigate to WAP websites, but it didn't work as a phone. It was the summer of 2000, a few months in to the catastrophic end of the dot-com boom.

Mobile telephony was still nascent in 2000, and many people bought a cell phone just in case of emergencies. The business uses of mobile phones were slightly less melodramatic, but not much: the office wouldn't call for just anything, particularly after hours. Years later, personal uses of mobile phones have become more like workplace uses: call only if you have to. But the Blackberry felt like something truly new. Being able to read and send email instantly, from anywhere offered a whole different experience of work. For the first time, I could be reached anywhere in service of the most mundane of questions or requests.

I remember the first day I had the Blackberry, hearing it buzz with new email notifications, sending a deep hum through the kitchen counter it sat atop. At night, the blinking red light that served as a silent notification in the darkness on the nightstand. Eventually--and it didn't take long--waking up at 2am to check it, or at the very least, picking it up first thing in the morning, before coffee, before even slipping on slippers.

At our Christmas party that year, an already dour affair thanks to the collapsing economy, the spouses of myself and two of the other executives who'd been deemed important enough to warrant Blackberry service complained about our compulsive habit. "Does he check it at night too?" "And at dinner. I hate it." "Mine uses it in the car, when he's at red lights or stuck on the freeway. Can you even imagine?" We knew they were annoyed, but we felt persecuted anyway. "Honey, this is work."

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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