Generation BlackBerry

Forget Asian bird flu; a new epidemic is sweeping the world. A new study shows that six million Britons have been felled by it. No, not obesity or mad cow disease, either. No less than six million inhabitants of the British Isles have been injured by walking into things while texting on their cell phones. It must be time to dust off that cliché about walking and chewing gum at the same time.

The epidemic of texting injuries is now so bad that one street in London is pilot testing padding street posts and garbage cans so oblivious texters will not be injured by rushing headlong into them. Apparently, expecting pedestrians to have "situational awareness" of large stationary objects is too much to ask of the citizenry.

Interestingly enough, the BlackBerry seduces people into imposing a
"work-centric" lifestyle on themselves; no corporate slave driver has
to do it.

It is an interesting sociological phenomenon, and one full of irony. As cell phones have become more complex with texting and internet features, users have become more engrossed in them. People are more connected electronically than ever before and, as a result, are less than ever connected to the physical world around them.

While the above anecdote on "safe texting" is amusing, it does bring to light a serious side to life in the 21st century. Namely, technology allows us to literally be connected and productive at almost any time and any place -- although not in the way that the time and place demand. Next time you are stuck in a boring seminar or conference, take a look around and you will see someone clicking away at their laptop or messaging away with their BlackBerry. People not only become oblivious to lampposts, they also disconnect from the physical world around them.

It may be presumptuous to consider over-zealous use of mobile phones as an addiction, but it very much looks like that when transmission is interrupted, so to speak. Research in Motion, the company that makes BlackBerries and runs the service for them, suffered a few brief outages that made national headlines complete with questions concerning whether America's favourite mobile phone brand was done for. Frustrated workers vent their anger against these intimate but sometimes unfaithful companions by chucking their phone at a wall.

Even BlackBerry users support the addiction theory: their pet name for the phones is "CrackBerry". And researchers have found a mental illness associated with loss of the device called "disconnect anxiety". It's not their fault; they have an illness. They have lost their key to the world and find themselves adrift in the raw data of reality.

There are warning signs, however. Insisting on bringing a BlackBerry into the bathroom may be a sign that it is time to get help. Driving while using the phone is a definite sign that someone has gone to "the bad place". An Ontario judge has ruled that any mobile phone use while driving a car impairs one's competence.

Strangely, BlackBerries are designed to help people be more -- not less -- productive wherever they are. They are primarily "work" devices, not "leisure" devices. There are not very many games to be had with the BlackBerry, for instance. Almost all of its applications are either informational or productivity-related. In fact, Research in Motion describes the device as follows: "A wireless email solution for mobile professionals. It provides easy access to your business email wherever you go." It is a business solution.

The focus on productivity (much like the term "human resources") implies a view of people as economic beings. We are meant to understand that walking down a street and enjoying the fresh air is simply wasting time in which we could be "getting things done". It takes a person and makes them a system whose sole purpose is to maximize outputs. Something of human dignity is lost when people are always worker bees in the great hive of the city. Interestingly enough, the BlackBerry seduces people into imposing a "work-centric" lifestyle on themselves; no corporate slave driver has to do it.

This is, of course, a small component of the larger issue of an "always-on" world. Business takes place 24 hours a day in a globalized world which requires people to be paying attention to their operations. An American businessman will have large problems with a nine-to-five workday when he manages plants in India and China. It's always nine-to-five somewhere and most businesses are more likely to have a supplier, customer or partner in another country. With the pressing need to always be "in the loop", one cannot afford to stop and enjoy life after 5pm. Something has to give. Apparently, what has been jettisoned is attention to stationary objects lining the sidewalk.

Whether wielded for work or pleasure, however, the effect of the mobile phone is the same. People dependent on their digital streams of information are unplugging more and more from the world around them, and BlackBerries are just a more respectable way of doing it. This trend won't change anytime soon, so if you see someone walking and texting, be sure not to get in their way.

John Bambenek is an incident handler at the Internet Storm Center and blogs at Part-Time Pundit. He is an unrepentant BlackBerry user.


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