They might make us feel indispensable, but mobile email gadgets are bad for relationships, bad for work and bad for the soul.
I ought to warn you. If you send me an email, I won’t reply. At least not till September, which will be the first time I see it. That’s because, as you read these words, I shall be on holiday, as far away from my inbox as it’s possible to be.
I shall be bucking a growing trend and travelling without a portable email device. The only blackberries I hope to see on my holiday are the kind you eat.
Among a certain demographic, that makes me a rarity. There are now an estimated nine million Blackberry users worldwide and the number in the U.K. is rising daily. Gather together some professional or business folk and they’ll soon confess the depth of their addiction. Or you’ll see it for yourself, as they pull out the gadget at intervals to check it and check it again.
Most of my contemporaries have packed a Blackberry in their holiday bag, even if they insist they’ll only sneak the occasional peek.
But we’re mild junkies compared to those in the United States. A survey in July found that six in every 10 Americans with a portable email device check messages in bed, while 37 per cent confessed to sending emails while driving (typing with their thumbs, steering with their knees). Most alarming, four in 10 keep their Blackberrys close by while they sleep, so they can sense the vibration or see the little red light announcing the arrival of a new message. A similar number said they actually replied to email in the dead of night. Very few of them will kick the habit this August: 83 per cent said they check email while on vacation.
The depth of America’s addiction was confirmed in April when a technical glitch denied service to 5 million Blackberry users, a sudden, collective plunge into cold turkey. Dependents reported reactions ranging from paranoia, feelings of isolation and severe longing — all classic symptoms of drug withdrawal. Some users speak of “phantom vibrations,” sensing an alert even when they’re apart from their Blackberry — even, for heaven’s sake, when they’re in the shower.
I understand these addicts because, briefly, I was one of them. For a few months I became transfixed by the palm-sized device, my eye returning constantly to its top-right corner, to see if the red light was winking. If it was, the curiosity was unbearable. Sure, you knew it was bound to be spam or an office round-robin, but what if it was something else, something exciting. Just one click ...
I once took it on holiday, making excuses to pop out and steal a glance. My wife hated it. Indeed, spousal loathing is a common, and cross-cultural, side-effect of Blackberry addiction. At a recent Jewish-Muslim dialogue, a Muslim businessman told me his wife referred to the hated gizmo as his “mistress,” demanding he lock it in a drawer from Friday night till Sunday evening, so badly had it disrupted their weekends. Eventually my Blackberry hit technical trouble and, like an accidental hole knocked in a prison wall, that gave me my chance to escape. I’ve been clean for more than two years now. And, like any reformed addict, I’ve come to see the full menace of the habit that once had me in its grip.
The first casualty is home life. The Blackberry user is never really at home. He may be in the room, but his mind is at work. The temptation to check is too great, even if you’re meant to be cooking supper or bathing the kids. I know a father who eventually took his son to a counsellor for behavioural problems, only to be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder — the deficit was in the amount of attention he was giving his son. Parents of the multi-tasking generation think we’re pulling off miracles, chatting to our children while firing off a quick response to Matt in Accounts — but the kids notice our distraction.
And when you interrupt a conversation to glance down at a screen, adults notice it too.
Nor, strangely enough, is portable email much good for your work. Blackberrys encourage the instant, brief response, when often a longer, more considered answer is required. But once you’ve hit reply on the Blackberry, thumbing out some holding message — “interesting, will get back to you” — the substantial response you should have written disappears over the horizon. The Blackberry registers a tick, so the problem’s gone away. More importantly, no one works well if they don’t switch off occasionally, if only — and here’s a metaphor the addicts should understand — to recharge their batteries. One hardcore fiend complains that his work now feels like “white noise,” a permanent, engulfing presence rather than a stimulating part of his day.
Above all, these machines are bad for your soul. I came to that admittedly extreme conclusion on a recent night at the theatre. At the end of each scene, a double glow appeared from the row in front: a couple were checking their Blackberrys. No matter what emotional depths were plumbed on stage, these two could not be reached. The gadget was a barrier to their hearts.
Users boast that once you have a Blackberry no time is dead time. Ten minutes waiting for a train are no longer lost, but used to plough through the email backlog. We are now living in what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls the “age of interruption” in which we “interrupt each other or ourselves with instant messages, email, spam or cellphone rings. Who can think or write or innovate under such conditions?”
I know the arguments, back and forth. “Ah, but my Blackberry is actually liberating,” says the addict. “It allows me to reduce the mountain of work waiting for me at the office.” Except notice how there’s still plenty for them to do when they get there; if anything, the mountain only seems to get bigger. “Oh, but I need to be in constant touch.” OK. But if your colleagues really need to get hold of you, they can always use the phone. Those defences are bogus. A more truthful explanation is that the Blackberry began as a status symbol, a sign of corporate seniority. The device suggests indispensability and this is the sensation that hooks the user. Of course I have to be contactable: people need me!
The line you almost never hear is “my employer makes me carry this thing.” The truth is, we’re doing it to ourselves and this is surely the Blackberry’s most pernicious feature. A whole cohort of workers are turning themselves into virtual slaves, on duty day and night for no extra payment. Their work now intrudes into their bathrooms, their bedrooms, even their sleep. The mobile device was sold as a form of liberation: now your office can be the beach. The trouble is, it’s turned the beach into the office.
Paid time off work was a right that had to be fought for and won. Yet now we are giving it away voluntarily, seduced by a neat, shiny little gadget. We need to win back the time and mental space we’ve lost - starting with switching off. Disagree? I’ll get back to you in September.