Wednesday, May 13, 2009
I got a BlackBerry. I have to say, it’s a pretty spiffy device. Are you annoyed with me for saying so? If not, I will proceed to enumerate its qualities. I can peek real quick at my e-mail, and calendar, without going to my PC and logging on. I can look at an online map when I’m lost, or check the Giro d’Italia results when I’m at my kid’s soccer game. It has a camera, and I can send the photos right to my e-mail instead of paying a cell phone company to transmit them to somebody. And I can “tether” my PC to it and enjoy wireless Internet access virtually anywhere.
Okay, now you’re annoyed. Good. I needed to get you to this place to prime you for my forthcoming examination of why such a seemingly innocent device can make normal people seem annoying, or at least bring out the latent annoyingness in all of us. (I also wanted to acknowledge the worth of this device, lest I seem hypocritical. Having become accustomed to its convenience, I wouldn’t want to give it up.) Finally, though this post isn’t a review of the BlackBerry or iPhone or any other smartphone, I’m hoping the proximity, in this sentence, of “review” to “BlackBerry” and “iPhone” will cause Google searches to direct people to my blog.
So, what is it about smartphones that gets people's heckles up? Let’s take an inventory.
A phone doesn’t have to be very smart to be annoying. Obviously, simple musical ringtones can pollute any public transit or marketplace atmosphere. The common hands-free cell phone functionality makes it impossible to tell the real crazies from ordinary people having a heated argument with an unseen party. And I often see some joe walking down the sidewalk engrossed in conversation and—without realizing it—holding the clip-on microphone right near his mouth, without any idea what a total idiot he looks like. The devices themselves don’t look bad, but just add humans and you get some pretty unpleasant spectacles.
The fancier the technology, the worse this gets, as illustrated by the Bluetooth receiver that clips onto your ear. Are people really so lazy, or so often on the phone, that this thing could possibly make sense? The first time I saw a Bluetooth ear thingy, my unspoken reaction was “Aw, poor guy, I guess he’s mostly deaf, and needs the most powerful, clunky hearing aid on the market.” I was shocked to learn it was a non-essential accessory worn by choice.
Outside of the devices themselves, the hype their creators have generated becomes tedious. My seven-year-old asked me recently, out of the blue, “Daddy, which type of Blackberry do you prefer: yours, or the touch-screen kind?” Aghast, I asked where she’d heard of the touch-screen model. “You know, those bulletins along the highway,” she replied. Aren’t these devices popular enough without ubiquitous billboards advertising them?
Invariably, these modern electronic devices are equipped with useless little electronic games. Often I see people—upscale, well-dressed, presumably gainfully employed people—on the train playing Tetris or Solitaire on their PC, smartphone, or whatever. On the one hand, how they spend their time is really their own business. But on the other hand, I find this behavior offensive. I truly believe I could find totally useful ways to fill a 36-hour day, and I’d still go to bed every night lamenting the things I couldn’t find the time to do—and yet here these guys are, killing time as ruthlessly and pointlessly as Buffalo Bill and his ilk when they slaughtered all those buffalo, shooting at the innocent beasts from their train windows as they passed, out of sheer boredom.
At a trade show recently, a guy in one of the expo booths saw the corporate logo on my shirt and thought maybe I could help him with his BlackBerry. (I work in telecommunications.) He joked that if I could solve his problem, he would guarantee that I’d win the bike they were raffling off. I said I’d do my best. His complaint was that when he played Brickbreaker, a little game on the BlackBerry resembling the first Pong video game ever invented, he couldn’t get past a certain advanced level because the software would lock up. How could he get past this?
This was a real dilemma. On the one hand, I had no idea how to help (having only briefly examined Brickbreaker before dismissing it from my life forever). On the other hand, I didn’t want to seem unhelpful. Fortunately, in a college rhetoric class I had learned some useful tricks, such as “slipping between the horns of the dilemma.” In other words, I could offer this fellow an alternative solution: “Get a life!” Of course, being a nice guy who is representing his employer, I didn’t put it this way. I suggested instead that instead of Brickbreaker, he take advantage of another BlackBerry feature wherein you can rearrange the icons on your device’s desktop to your liking. It’s like a game—whenever you move one icon to where you want it, you disturb the ideal location of another icon, just like a sliding-number fifteen puzzle—except that when you’ve finished “playing” you’ve actually accomplished something. Plus, this application never crashes. (As you may have guessed, the guy didn’t like this suggestion.)
I think the strongest reaction against smartphone-using behavior comes from those who don’t appreciate the trajectory that these technological advances tend to take. In the beginning, the hi-tech device confers a rare advantage on the user—a lucky thing for him, without any effect on anybody else. (For example, the smartphone user can read his e-mail even when he’s not at his desk.) Then the new capability becomes something others can count on, which creates a new burden for the user. (Having a smartphone means being available to others on e-mail all the time.) Eventually, the technology becomes sufficiently widespread that everybody counts on everybody else having it, and those who refuse to adopt it cause actual resentment. If you don’t believe this, think about your reaction last time you tried to phone somebody and he didn’t have voice-mail or an answering machine. Or, imagine how annoyed you’d be if a friend or relative decided to renounce the telephone entirely.
Arrogance , showiness
Of course the main complaint people have with the early adopters of a slick and expensive new technology is the smugness these adopters tend to have. There’s a propensity among these people to go out of their way to use the new technology right in front of you, ignoring the fact that unless the technology is Botox or a padded bra, it isn’t doing the onlooker any good at all. It’s just an obnoxious display of one-upmanship—bad enough when the technology truly is impressive, and even worse when it’s not.
Somehow, the silent features of the smartphones make the user think he’s not only inaudible but invisible. Many cell phone users have, by now, figured out that they should step away from a public space to make (or field) a phone call, but the texters and e-mailers have evidently not. For example, a colleague from another branch, who invited me to lunch, spent most of the meal trying to buy something at an online auction. (I was not impressed.) Or consider our babysitter, who tuned out from our (albeit inconsequential) conversation to exchange some (doubtless utterly worthless) text messages. I’ve seen people in meetings go from letting their eyes flit momentarily to their smartphones to sharing their attention equally between the smartphone and me, to eventually forgetting they were in a meeting at all and peering with utter absorption into their smartphone screens. Miss Manners would see fit to have these people electrocuted.
Sometimes it’s not the use of the device but the mere display of it that is showy. I refer you again to the clip-on Bluetooth receiver. The second time I ever saw one of these was (coincidentally) at a Vegas trade show. A really cheesy guy, in a suit and tie and looking like Dilbert’s boss, was taking a parade lap of the convention hall with a hired bimbo on each arm, looking exceedingly proud of himself (as though anybody in attendance thought for a second he hadn’t just hired the bimbos like people used to hire a team of horses to pull their carriage). His glittering Bluetooth receiver was of a piece with his suit, his grin, and the spectacle of his bimbo parade. My colleague Brendan, as disgusted as I was, couldn’t take it and ran up to the guy. “Sir, sir!” Brendan cried out. “There’s something in your ear!”
Eye of the beholder?
The problem with diving right into this righteous indignation is that we’re prone to finding fault that isn’t really deserved. For example, what if I’m organizing the icons on my BlackBerry’s desktop—a perfectly reasonable thing to do—and you incorrectly assume I’m wasting my time on a dumb game? Or, consider my brother Geoff’s observation that people like to show off their fancy phones by setting them on the table when having a meal or coffee. For years I, too, thought of this as a needless display. But when I got my Blackberry I came to realize why people do this. It isn’t to show off the phone; it’s because cell phone buttons (especially on older, non-flip-top phones and modern smartphones) have a tendency to get pushed when you sit down with the device in your pocket. Once, as I sat down to lunch with a colleague, my Blackberry dialed the last number in memory, which turned out to be his. Imagine his surprise when the caller was—me!
Which brings me to an e-mail exchange I had with my brother Bryan. The first time I tried out the Blackberry camera feature, I discovered that I could e-mail photos directly from the phone. Of course I had to test this (and, yes, show off), so I sent a couple of photos of my daughters to my brother. I should have known I’d be in for it.
Of course I knew about the footer, “Sent using Blackberry,” that would be attached to the e-mail to my brother, and I had a pretty good feeling that a) for good reason, and b) because he’s my older brother, Bryan would be commenting on that footer. I was not mistaken: click on the e-mail snapshot below to read his message.
(For the record, I don’t have cocktails before lunch, nor do I own or drive a luxury sedan.)
Bryan doesn’t explain exactly how my “Sent using BlackBerry” puts him at relative ease. I'm guessing it’s that he figures my use of this header is unintentional, that the footer is factory-configured, and all the footers from BlackBerry users are also unintentional, and thus people aren't as pompous as he’d feared. And I think he’s partially right. I propose that there are four main categories of smartphone user, which I will describe in descending order of annoyingness.
The first category comprises those who really are that proud of their smartphones, their connectedness, their with-it-ness, and their high-flying wi-fi ways. These people would go out of their way to put a “Sent using BlackBerry” footer on their messages even if it weren't pre-configured.
The second category covers the people who might be on the fence about whether or not to boast openly about their BlackBerryness, and would have to think hard about whether to set up the footer, but who don't have to decide because the footer is sent by default and they're perhaps glad the decision was made for them.
The third category consists of those who don't like the footer and wish it wasn't on there, but can't figure out how to remove it. (This process is not actually very straightforward, which is possibly by design.) These are the ones who, whenever e-mailing from their Blackberries, feel the “wince of remorse” my brother imagines.
The fourth category consists of those who don't like the footer and remove it. Of course, we have no way of knowing how many BlackBerry users fall into this category, because they're invisible. Their messages might as well have come from an Ethernet-connected PC.
Which brings me to my own case. As it happens, I don't fall into any of the four categories I set forth above. (Makes you wonder at their validity, eh?) To begin with, I was inclined to delete the footer. Before being issued a Blackberry of my own, when I got e-mails from Blackberries (or iPhones, which carry their own footer), I had always found the footer slightly boastful too, though thankfully I never said anything to anybody. (“You all without sin can cast the first stone....”) But on the verge of deleting my footer, I paused, reconsidered, and backed off. Why?
Well, for complicated reasons you surely wouldn’t care to hear about, I’m pretty sure my employer wants to promote Blackberry. That may be part of why they pay for my phone. And so, as a good corporate citizen, who gets to enjoy the capabilities of this actually rather groovy device, I would feel pretty shabby removing the footer, or changing it to something like “Sent while driving.”
I think the growing success of smartphones will eventually eliminate the ostentation of their users. We’ve seen this evolution before. Remember when phone answering machines were new? People would go out of their way to record funny, often elaborate outgoing messages. Many corporate types recorded a fresh outgoing message every day, announcing their general availability and such. But I don’t come across such custom messages anymore. (Do you?)
It also seems to me the cell phone culture has become more subdued. When cell phones were only in the hands of the elite, it seemed like those who had them talked a lot louder, and more often, in public. Whether through natural evolution or the efforts of businesses like restaurants prohibiting them, this activity has died down, even while the number of cell phone users has skyrocketed. I have read that the ringtone industry peaked in 2003 and has since died down quite a bit; apparently cell phone users eventually realized that custom ringtones just aren’t that cool after all.
Other technologies, too, have mellowed out or disappeared. Car alarms, once a must-have for anybody who thought his car (and/or car stereo) valuable, have gone from an epidemic to a blessed rarity. When e-mail first took hold, the number of forwarded jokes threatened to paralyze us all until people evidently tired of participating in the e-mail-tainment (though spam has stepped in to perpetuate our annoyance). Maybe in time the smartphone will evolve from a gee-whiz cutting-edge product into a basic, uncelebrated tool, and smartphone-originated e-mails won’t carry the “Sent from…” footers anymore. Indeed, I can foresee a world where the standard reaction to such a footer would be, “Well, duh!”