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.