The Blackberry: Destroyer of Worlds -- And the New York Senate

I finally understood this week that my wife was right--that the Blackberry is the tool of Satan. It is Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds. The way I came to understand this was itself a sign of the sickness that this instrument brings.

Please ponder the case of one Malcolm Smith, who until a few days ago was the majority leader of the New York State Senate. Smith received a visit from a New York billionaire named Tom Golisano, who has spent a good chunk of his fortune in recent years running quixotic campaigns for governor, bankrolling some of Bill Clinton's activities and otherwise trying to let the world know that a man named Tom Golisano once strode the earth. He had bankrolled Smith and other Democrats to help them take control of the state senate in January for the first time in 43 years.

It was natural, then, for Golisano to expect that he would have Smith's full attention when he went to see him in Albany. But Golisano had the same experience that millions of other people have millions of time a day. Instead of having a real conversation with Smith, he had the equivalent of a conversation with one tenth of Smith's brain. The other nine tenths were going over his email, as if a jokey message from a friend, or a press release from some marginally relevant organization, or an RSS feed from a stupid website were more important than his political patron.

"I said, I'm talking to the wall here," Golisano told the New York Times. The wall did not apologize or answer appropriately and so Golisano decided to put his efforts behind two turncoat Democrats ready to switch parties and return the Republicans to power. One of the senators, Hiram Monseratte, had been indicted for stabbing his wife with broken glass. The other, Pedro Espada, had been fined for flagrant campaign spending abuses. But because neither of those offenses compared to Smith's Crackberry jones, the GOP is back in power in Albany.

I can't get inside Smith's head to know why he threw it all away for some cheap emails. All I know is that his head, if it's like mine, is awfully crowded with awfully fractionalized relationships with people, or more properly, with the digitized, disembodied version of people that exists online.

Blackberry use has nearly doubled in the last year and is up ten fold in four years. More than 25 million have been sold, which means there must be something deeply human about their appeal. Some have compared the phenomenon to a "Skinner's box," a reference to the psychologist B.F. Skinner's experiments with how certain stimuli work on the brain.

My wife has a simpler analogy for people who diddle all day. Masturbation. But without the release. It's not like there's a fabulous climactic email that makes thumbing the monkey all worthwhile.

How do you know you have a problem? Judith Martin, aka "Miss Manners," told me a couple of years ago that it's rude to use a Blackberry in the presence of other people. Period. Using it in front of your children, as I do on occasion, is, in her book, just one step up from criminal neglect.

But instead of reforming my behavior to stop being impolite or to be more present for my wife and kids, I was only brought up short when I realized through the sad case of Senator Smith that the Blackberry could be the agent of career harm. The final rationalization--that it saves time and helps me do my job better--now lay in tatters, too. Instead of winning friends online, I may be losing them in person, in that moment when they see me with my head down, concentrating on someone else.

I wish I could tell you that I'm now ready to give up my Blackberry. That would give this tale an uplifting end. But I can't and I won't. I'm hooked. I'm like a drug abuser who looks at some junkie in an alley, a needle in his vein, and says, 'That's not me.' Except it is.

Written on a blackberry wireless handheld device.