The Cigarette of This Century

In January 1995, a year and a half before Hotmail launched the world’s first web-based email service, a landmark California law banning smoking in most public places went into effect. Back then, smoking was already on the decline, especially in California, but it was probably still more common than having an email account.

The change was most immediately noticeable in restaurants. No longer would a host or hostess ask “smoking or non-?” before seating you. It sounds silly today—most Americans bristle at the idea of smoking while eating, and many restaurants in states without explicit bans have chosen to prohibit smoking for social rather than legal reasons. Smokers are still around, of course, but now they excuse themselves to the courtyard or the alley, where they gather in groups like outcasts. In fact, they are outcasts, forced to commune with their habit and one another in private.

It used to be different. At smoking’s peak in 1965, over 40 percent of the U.S. population lit up, compared to less than half that figure today. The rise of cigarette smoking took less time to evolve than it has to decline. By the turn of the twentieth century, the cigarette’s small size and cheap cost made it readily available to most industrial populations. And thanks to milder tobaccos, its smoke could be inhaled more readily, making smoking a more comfortable and pleasurable affair. The cigarette is a technology, after all, subject to the same forces of innovation, adoption, and decline as the personal computer or the mobile phone. And as a technology, the cigarette offers utility beyond its intended purpose as a nicotine delivery apparatus. As Marshall McLuhan observed, it enhances a sense of poise and calm by giving the smoker a prop, reducing social awkwardness. It retrieves tribal practices of ritual and security and obsolesces loneliness by giving everyone something in common to do, such as asking for a light.

Five short years after California banned smoking in restaurants, connectivity seemed essential, and more and more work got done by email. The technology services company I worked for at the time bought me a BlackBerry 957, the taller version of Research in Motion’s (RIM) pager-shaped wireless email device. Back then, a BlackBerry could read email or navigate to WAP websites, but it didn’t work as a phone. It was summer 2000, a few months into the catastrophic end of the dot-com boom.

Mobile telephony was still nascent in 2000, and many people bought a cell phone just in case of emergencies. The business uses of mobile phones were slightly less melodramatic, but not much: the office wouldn’t call for just anything, particularly after hours. Years later, personal uses of mobile phones have become more like workplace uses: call only if you have to. But the BlackBerry felt like something truly new. Being able to read and send email instantly, from anywhere, offered a whole different experience of work. For the first time, I could be reached anywhere in service of the most mundane of questions or requests.

I remember the first day I had the BlackBerry, hearing it buzz with new email notifications, sending a deep hum through the kitchen counter atop which it sat; at night, the blinking red light serving as a silent notification in the darkness on the nightstand; eventually—and it didn’t take long—waking up at 2:00 a.m. to check it or, at the very least, picking it up first thing in the morning, before coffee, before even slipping on slippers.

At our Christmas party that year, an already dour affair thanks to the collapsing economy, my spouse and those of two of the other executives who’d been deemed important enough to warrant BlackBerry service complained about our compulsive habit. “Does he check it at night too?” “And at dinner. I hate it.” “Mine uses it in the car, when he’s at red lights or stuck on the freeway. Can you even imagine?” We knew they were annoyed, but we felt persecuted anyway. “Honey, this is work.”

Today, all our wives and husbands have BlackBerries or iPhones or Galaxies or whatever—the progeny of those original 950 and 957 models that put data in our pockets. Now we all check email (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or . . .) compulsively at the dinner table, or the traffic light. Now we all stow our devices on the nightstand before bed and check them first thing in the morning. We all do. It’s not abnormal, and it’s not just for business. It’s just what people do. Like smoking in 1965, it’s just life.

For years now, omens of RIM’s possible demise have lingered in the air like stale cigarette smoke. How, some ask, could such a powerful and prescient company fall so hard, ceding their legacy to sector “upstarts” like Apple and Google? And indeed, the company may not survive the rise of its competitors. But calling BlackBerry a failure is like calling Lucky Strike a failure. Not just for its brand recognition and eponymy, but even more so for the fact that its products set up a chain reaction that has changed social behavior in a way we still don’t fully understand—just as our parents and grandparents didn’t fully understand the cigarette in the 1960s.

For McLuhan, when pushed to the limits of its powers, the cigarette flips into a nervous tic, an addiction. Perhaps the best way to grasp BlackBerry’s legacy is by imagining a hypothetical future, fifty years hence, when compulsive Internet-connected personal devices overheat and reverse into their opposite. It’s certainly possible to accuse smartphones of such a curse already, even if we never find as certain a detrimental effect as lung cancer was to cigarettes. We’ve already started to regulate texting while driving, after all.

But even absent an excuse grounded in public health and welfare, it is not unfathomable to imagine a prospective society that finds the tic itself to be as abhorrent and vile as today’s culture does cigarettes. In that putative future, smartphone users would be relegated to special rooms in airports, where passersby would shake their heads disapprovingly at the gray faces lit from below by their tiny, blue screens. The father or mother who pulls a phone from a pocket at dinner would feel knowing shame, followed by the relief of new data. Crotchety former hipsters would gather outside the entryways of public buildings, tapping out tomorrow’s relics of tweets or tumblrs while twenty-somethings pass by, oblivious.

Apple (and Google’s Android, but via Apple’s own reflection) has assumed the mantle of portable computing once held by BlackBerry. And though we may feel that such an office mostly entails how we work and play on our mobile devices, in the long run it matters very little which apps we run or which social networks we upload to from our smartphones. It’s far more important that we carry them, that we look at them. That we need to look at them, such that we make excuses to do so.

Even in the heyday of the cigarette, children and teenagers were protected from them. They were a known sin, but they were a sin of adulthood. Sneaking a smoke was a surreptitious ritual of youth as much as a rite of passage. Even before the cigarette’s status as carcinogen was widely known and accepted, something about them remained unseemly. Dirty, smelly, dark, dangerous. Perhaps the fact that cigarettes are literally on fire offered enough cover to help adults cover over the latent ignominy of using them—even when everyone did. And over time, the knowledge that smoking cigarettes would eventually kill you built into them a baseline mortification, an undeniable danger and imprudence. “I’m trying to quit,” one could always rationalize between drags.

No equivalent indignity exists for today’s smokes. Teens and children are encouraged to own and use smartphones. The iPod replaced the boom box or the video game console as the ultimate treasure to find under the Christmas tree. Even babies have iDevices now, thanks to special shock-and-drool-proof cases manufactured explicitly for them. To stare down a screen is just what we do. Everyone’s pockets itch at the dinner table, as so many possibilities buzz anonymously under denim.

Now the shame comes in recognizing the absence of shame. As one’s children grow into teenagers, as one can no longer deny them devices but might even justify their utility as communication tools, a stupid, aluminum-and-glass version of that trite Harry Chapin “Cat’s in the Cradle” realization wafts up like the smoke it replaces: how can I tell my kid to put the phone away at the table or on the sofa, when I won’t do so either? Without appeal to the immediate safety or longevity or financial burden that used to excuse the hypocrisy of adult smokers discouraging youths from adopting the habit, we can all sink into the tasteless, odorless sin of pocketable data.

It took fifty years for computers to move from office basements to handbags, and scarcely five more for them to enter our pockets. Now we take them everywhere. Laptops, tablets, smartphones: they are always on hand and, thanks to their portability, always at the ready. Even worse, they’re always connected, and the boundless potential of a hypothetical interaction is always better than the specific reality of one actually taking place.

But even despite its ubiquity, we still itch with anxiety for having allowed computer-mediated interactions to eclipse face-to-face ones. Most often, detractors make appeals to etiquette and tradition as a salve for our newfound data habit. Isn’t it rude to turn our attention away from people right in front of us?

It’s a weak argument because you already know the answer, and you don’t care. Of course it’s rude to disrupt one conversation just in case another one might be more interesting. Obvious exceptions exist (family emergencies, urgent requests from a superior), but they rarely occur anyway. To ask if task switching to your smartphone is rude is to ask the wrong question. Instead, we should wonder why we seem so willing to adopt this particular kind of discourtesy. Some might answer that we haven’t done so willingly, that we’re compelled, even addicted to our gadgets and the services they deliver.

But compulsion isn’t the whole story, either, just as it never was with cigarettes. The truth is that we secretly want to be rude. Rudeness is a sign of success, of power, of poise, of calm. Think of a figure who would willingly turn away from a conversation to take a call, who would show up late without apology, who would maintain total contingency in his affairs just in case something more important comes along.

It’s none other than the corporate executive, who also happens to be the early adopter of the mobile phone and the BlackBerry that presaged today’s connected devices. The executive always holds time in reserve, because he sees his time (or hers, but mostly his) as more precious than yours. “I’m sorry, I have to take this” is less a statement of deference than it is one of authority: “I am important enough to snub you.”

For better or worse, the businessman is the hero of contemporary culture. Our hero is no longer the rock star or the pro ballplayer or the actor but rather the wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. It’s no surprise that his manner would win out over Miss Manners in the public imagination. We rarely admit it, but we all want to be important, yet most of us aren’t. Smartphones let us simulate that importance, replacing boardroom urgency with household triviality. And even though they seem like populist devices, smartphones can never fully shed their origins as rapacious instruments of executive grandstanding. There will always be something rude about smartphone use, because smartphones allow us all to play the role of a cultural paragon we didn’t choose, one we may even despise, but one whose influence we can’t disavow. Rather than blackening our lungs like yesteryear’s handheld devices, today’s blacken our hearts.

The point is not whether technologies like smartphones actually make us more or less connected to one another—that’s a cheap, pat question whose answer is best left to trade books and TED talks. The point is that technologies like the BlackBerry and its progeny change our social fabric in ways that we often cannot see, and therefore cannot fully reason about. McLuhan argued that technologies can never be fully grasped in the present, but only after we establish some distance from them. Today, we lament the fall of RIM as if it were an athlete whose prodigious career was cut short by hubris. But perhaps the truth is even weirder than that. Ruined or not, BlackBerry has left us with the most distinctive social tic since cigarettes, which Apple made palatable through the low-tar’s design equivalent, Bauhaus modernism. And cigarettes may be deadly and disgusting, but they’re cool and chic too. Pulling down an interface to refresh an app isn’t all that different from taking a drag: the sensuous richness of the idea of new information at any moment, the egomania of feeling justified in always grasping at it, and the frothing, blooming world that spins unseen while we fondle our devices in search of something else.