The great William Shakespeare once wrote “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? If you take away our BlackBerry, do we not run around like screaming maniacs acting like the world has come to an end?”. Okay, Shakespeare didn’t write that last line but he did write “Lord, what fools these mortals be” and that might have been more appropriate a line to use yesterday when the BlackBerry smartphone network failed.
Being a BlackBerry user myself, I watched events unfold yesterday from the perspective of both a user as well as a spectator to the world stage. As the problem grew, in many cases exacerbated by some of my 70 million (and dropping) fellow users, I bore witness to some truths I didn’t like a lot. Here is a rundown of some of the events of October 12th, 2011.
BlackBerry users in North America woke up to discover that the same problem that had already been plaguing users in Europe and Africa the previous day was now presenting itself to them in the form of a smartphone that wasn’t working properly. Email was spotty at best, Twitter and Facebook was iffy and worst of all, BlackBerry Messenger, the built-in messaging system shared only among BlackBerry users was DOA (Dead on Arrival).
Customers like me were also discovering that their BlackBerry Enterprise Server was no longer working and therefore not pushing email to the phones or allowing you to access your address book (mine needed to be downloaded again and I could not get through to the server to retrieve my data). To make matters worse, I was scheduled to leave on an annual trip I take each year to the Blue Ridge Mountains with a car club and I had no working BlackBerry, no trip data, nothing. For the first time in five years, I was totally disconnected from the technology that I have grown so accustomed to having….and I was not alone.
Congressional leaders and their staffs were cut off and isolated, forced to be chained to their desks because they couldn’t get their email any other way. I heard it rumored that President Obama contacted Canada and offered them a piece of Alaska if they could get his phone working correctly again. Meanwhile, as leaders of the free world were dealing with being out of touch with their colleagues and constituents, a backwash of craziness was building in the Twitterverse as BlackBerry users (those that could get a Tweet out from their desktop) were joined by millions of iPhone and Droid users bitterly denouncing the failure of BlackBerry, writing 140 character obituaries and many just being plain vulgar and callous. The iPhone and Droid users were especially enjoying the drama unfolding, reminding everyone that if they had just bought a (insert phone name here) they wouldn’t be dealing with this problem now.
BlackBerry users who were initially sympathetic to parent company Research in Motion’s predicament soon began joining others who were digging the hole to “bury the Berry” as the hours of down time dragged on. The comediennes began to weigh in and the teen users who had been without BlackBerry messenger for longer than any time in their lives became vicious, threatening to head for Apple or Google as soon as they could convince their parents to buy them a new phone. As for myself, I finally had to leave for my trip without a phone directory in my BlackBerry, and since most everyone I have to communicate with does so by cell phone or email, my ability to make phone calls dropped from 540 to 3. My wife, my mother and the local Sheriff. That is about all I can remember since I no longer had to remember numbers once they were programmed into my phone with their name. My father, on the other hand, used to know hundreds of phone numbers in his head and probably still does.
As the day went on, I listened for the reassuring chirp of an incoming email and never heard one come in. A few times the phone rang and I was reluctant to answer it because I didn’t recognize the number and it might have been someone I didn’t want to talk with while I was on a vacation. As time went by I came to realize just how dependent I have become on a piece of technology to manage my daily life, to entertain me, to allow me to reach my social network and to live somewhat of a normal life. I have become dependent on a piece of technology that while normally very reliable, is still quite capable of failing. My mother was totally unsympathetic, reminding me that she had lived many decades without the benefit of a smartphone and that people are going to eventually forget how to communicate personally with each other as our true social skills are waning. She is probably right about that.
I thought back to the vitriolic spewing of anti-blackberry sentiment I had seen on Twitter against the company that is responsible for giving a smartphone to the world in the first place and likened it to how people were to Moses when things didn’t go well. He performed miracles, parted the Red Sea, destroyed Pharaoh’s army and liberated the Israelites and they thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread but every time they ran short on bread and got a little hungry, they were ready to hang him from a tree. Then I put things in perspective and understood it a little better.
The teenagers today who were bemoaning the loss of BlackBerry messenger or Twitter have hardly ever lived their lives without having those things. They go from Barbie dolls and Lego straight to social networks and texting so the the loss of everything they know had to be almost traumatic to them and the overwhelming fear that they might miss out on what their friends were doing had to be more than they could bear so they lashed out with hate and vengeance against the company that had let them down. It’s a lot to think about when you suddenly lose your entire circle of friends at one blow. Understanding this makes it easier to understand what motivated them to such despair in a matter of hours. It meant they had to pick up a phone to talk to one friend at a time or sit at a computer if they wanted to talk to more. Heaven help us if the internet itself ever crashes globally. We will be back in the stone age within a matter of hours.
Fortunately, the situation was handled and late last night, things started to get back to normal in the Twitterverse. We can thank the dedicated employees of Research in Motion for putting the world back on track again. I finally got my phone directory back and my emails and life is good once more….but one truth we all know now is that those things which we depend on can and will fail us from time to time and we need to remember how to live, to talk to one another and to survive without beeping and chirping.
I hope I can still remember how.