The Cigarette of This Century

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


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."

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.