This article originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.
I resisted getting my first mobile phone for quite some time—being reachable anywhere, anytime seemed a dubious luxury—but almost as soon as I caved, I was once again made to feel technologically behind.
That’s because a few weeks after I started carrying around my little Nokia phone, sometime around the turn of the millennium, the top editors at the New York Times, where I worked at the time, were discreetly given BlackBerrys by company IT. Suddenly, my bosses had this magical ability to access their email on the run, in the palm of their hands, a power they would wield with their thumb as they turned the email machine’s iconic side wheel. Supposedly, they could instantly get all their email on this device without even being plugged into the Internet, even from across the Atlantic.
But how? None of it made any sense.
I have been thinking of those early BlackBerry days in recent weeks, as the Canadian maker of the device has acknowledged it is in dire straits—most recently announcing that it will be going private and that it must take a $1 billion write-off because its new models aren’t selling. How quickly the fates can turn! As recently as 2009, Fortune proclaimed BlackBerry (then called Research in Motion) the world’s fastest-growing company, and in 2006 the Webster’s New World College Dictionary had enshrined “Crackberry” as the new word of the year.
Smartphones have become so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget how stunningly disruptive the arrival of the BlackBerry—technically a pager before later models became phones—really was. I have worked in a number of different jobs offering different types of perks, but I have never seen a more sought-after workplace perk than a BlackBerry. For much of the first decade of the century, across a wide range of white-collar industries, an employer-issued BlackBerry was the ultimate status symbol, the ultimate validator that you were essential to the enterprise. The very fact that this latest technological marvel was typically obtained from work—unlike most other must-have tech marvels—gave it even more cachet, although it’s also one factor that ultimately contributed to its downfall.
The gradual spread of BlackBerrys across the land also created a new type of high-class addiction for Type-A achievers—hence the “Crackberry.” In those early years, investment bankers, media executives, lawyers, celebrities, and top political figures (Al Gore was an early adopter, receiving his 2000 Election Day results on his BB) could commiserate among themselves about the burdens that came with such responsibility—their inability ever to shut off work and live in the moment. Whining about such “essential person” problems became a badge of honor. And lest anyone be confused about where you stood if you’d been issued one of these devices, the emails you typed on its tiny keyboard would read “Sent from my BlackBerry.” Take that.
When BlackBerrys first made their appearance, I knew I wasn’t worthy. But as they began their slow spread across organizations, I realized I should probably resist getting one for as long as possible, for the same reason I never tried the real crack or any other types of drugs: I might really like it and not be able to draw boundaries. And for a couple years I considered it a blessing to be able to detach from email, figuring that in a real emergency someone could call my “dumb” Nokia, which had gone from cutting-edge extravagance to outdated utility in a remarkably short amount of time.
It was in 2005 that I threw in the towel and accepted my first BlackBerry from an employer. It was inevitable as a work matter, given the undeniable convenience of being accessible at all times, not just to talk but to review long texts. But I have to admit there was also an element of personal vanity that led me to cave. It irked me to get emails “Sent from my BlackBerry” from one too many people who didn’t seem more deserving of such a marvel. I recall one work lunch in Los Angeles with a neurotic political operator who couldn’t stop checking her BlackBerry, halfheartedly apologizing about how important all those emails were. For my part, all I could do was stare at my Nokia, which never rang, wondering if I was somehow less important.
Sure enough, as soon as I got my own BlackBerry, I became insufferably distracted to anyone before me, even as I became hyperattentive to folks reaching out beyond the ether. We’re now accustomed to the social critique that we’ve all disengaged from our immediate surroundings on account of being hijacked by our hand-held screens, but early on the only screen that was doing that was the BlackBerry’s. And there were few things as sweet as the device’s vibrations, that purring of connectivity, that I’d feel on those rare occasions when I would behave and put my BB in my pocket during a meeting.
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