The Cigarette of This Century

Today, all our wives and husbands have Blackberries or iPhones or Android devices or whatever--the progeny of those original 950 and 957 models that put data in our pockets. Now we all check their email (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or...) compulsively at the dinner table, or the traffic light. Now we all stow our devices on the nightstand before bed, and check them first thing in the morning. We all do. It's not abnormal, and it's not just for business. It's just what people do. Like smoking in 1965, it's just life.

Today, omens of RIM's possible demise linger in the air like stale cigarette smoke. How, some ask, could such a powerful and prescient company fall so hard, ceding their legacy to sector "upstarts" like Apple and Google? And indeed, the company may not survive the rise of its competitors. But calling Blackberry a failure is like calling Lucky Strike a failure. Not just for its brand recognition and eponymy, but even more so, for the fact that its products set up a chain reaction that has changed social behavior in a way we still don't fully understand--just as our parents and grandparents didn't fully understand the cigarette in the 1960s.

For McLuhan, when pushed to the limits of its powers the cigarette flips into a nervous tic, an addiction. Perhaps the best way to grasp Blackberry's legacy is by imagining a hypothetical future, fifty years hence, when compulsive Internet-connected personal devices overheat and reverse into their opposite. It's certainly possible to accuse smartphones of such a curse already, even if we never find as certain a detrimental effect as lung cancer was to cigarettes. We've already started to regulate texting while driving, after all.

But even absent an excuse grounded in public health and welfare, it is not unfathomable to imagine a prospective society that finds the tic itself to be as abhorrent and vile as today's culture does cigarettes. In that putative future, smartphone users would be relegated to special rooms in airports, where passers by would shake their heads disapprovingly at the grey faces lit from below by their tiny, blue screens. The father or mother who pulls a phone from a pocket at dinner would feel knowing shame, followed by the relief of new data. Crotchety former hipsters would gather outside the entryways of public buildings, tapping out tomorrow's relics of tweets or tumblrs while twentysomethings pass by, oblivious.

The point is not whether technologies like smartphones actually make us more or less connected to one another--that's a cheap, pat question whose answer is best left to trade books and TED talks. The point is that technologies like the Blackberry change our social fabric in ways that we often cannot see, and therefore cannot fully reason about. McLuhan argued that technologies can never be fully grasped in the present, but only after we establish some distance from them. Today we lament the downfall of Research In Motion as if it were an athlete whose prodigious career was cut short by hubris. But perhaps the truth is even weirder than that. Ruined or not, Blackberry has left us with the most distinctive social tic since cigarettes. And cigarettes may be deadly and disgusting, but they're cool and chic too. Live or die this quarter, such will be the meaning of Blackberry in the long-term: the sensuous richness of the idea of new information at any moment, and the frothing, blooming world that spins unseen while we fondle our devices in search of something else.

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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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