Revolutions

Since I read Deep Work, I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of time I waste on social media and, overall, distracted. This has come as a realisation that my addiction to it was worse than I was aware of: picking up my mobile every time I had to wait or queue up was my default mode; I became conscious of how many times I was just watching a commercial on Instagram, and how many trains of thought I had in the shower compared to out of it. This had to end.

After having removed all my social media apps on my mobile, the screen looks… charmless. In fact, why having one of those killer smartphones when something a bit retro might do, for a tiny fraction of the price?

That was the moment when I thought about my old BlackBerry. I found an article on Forbes that, in hindsight, is comical. Being written in 2009, the author of one of those silly books, in which society as a whole falls into the narrative fallacy, explains the “future of the BlackBerry”:

The idea of the telebrain is a brain in your pocket. Experts say the future will bring many radios on a single chip, mobile storage as big as the human brain, high-definition mobile video and wireless spectrum galore. Lazaridis [founder of RIM and creator of BlackBerry] has been funding an institute of quantum physics in Canada for years. One engineer I spoke to said Lazaridis is interested in marrying quantum physics with mobile devices. You could also call it techno-telepathy; technology that allows people to stay in such close touch, it’s almost like telepathy.

– Alastair Sweeny, author of “BlackBerry Planet”

That’s one of the things we covered in an essay before: media buys a lot of hype and do not understand the reputational damage this may cause. Well, a toast to Forbes. Notwithstanding the idea that quantum mechanics is already in a mobile device: it explains how laser works, how a transistor works, the hard drive, the MRI, and a bulk of technologies that we take for granted nowadays, including the BlackBerry and other smartphones.

A swift break: if you were still thinking of buying the book of this poor soul, don’t. It’s not Lindy-compatible.

Like most of my generation, I had a BlackBerry. I bought one after one of my colleagues in university acquired one, and, like everyone else, fell for having a small computer in their pockets with which chat all day. We even had that day when BB Messenger was down, and it didn’t matter. Or, on the contrary, it did, because 70 million people had one.

BlackBerry took over my generation. It’s private messenger is part of history, as it’s believed to be at the core of people’s communication in what eventually become 2010’s Arab Spring. Part of the reason why I remember my BB fondly is the higher standard on privacy, plus the benefit of not having to deal with highly addictive applications, because there were none that support BlackBerry OS.

Unfortunately, everything in life is a trade-off. Whatsapp does not support BlackBerry OS anymore. I wouldn’t care Facebook to not support it, but Whatsapp, seems to me, it’s a deal-breaker. I wouldn’t be able to communicate with my close friends and my family in the way that I do it now.

This has happened recurrently in history: we invent a breakthrough technology that enables us in some way that adoption becomes widespread; then, when trying to go back, there’s backslash, as we would have to give up pretty much everything that we now take for granted.

  1. The Neolithic Revolution was the transition from hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement. It made an increasingly large population possible, but it also created the concept of private property. Try going back to ‘live in the mountains’ to experience a huge backslash from this.

  2. Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman empire, tried to restore the Empire’s anient Roman values and forbade the Christians from teaching classical texts and learning. As we discussed in Skin in the Game, he failed to understand that the Constantinian shift brought with it a unification of religious rituals, which is something you cannot come back from.

  3. The Steam Engine: The simultaneous perfection of the steam engine and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is a chicken and egg scenario. Factories that still relied on wind or water power to drive their machines were confined to places where they would have access to those sources; the steam engine brought factories that could be built anywhere. Returning from that in a place without access to a strong, constant water stream was ruinous.

  4. The Atomic Bomb: The secret endeavour known as the Manhattan Project by which American physicist invented and developed the atomic bomb changed the curse of history. It’s debatable whether it helped win a war that was already won, but the dropping of ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Enola Gay’ on Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealed the true destructive power of these weapons, which led to the beginning of the Cold War, from which, as a species, effectively haven’t moved on, as there is still enough nuclear power to wipe out human civilisation as we all know it.

Don’t take this as an exhaustive list. There are probably more examples, even at smaller scale, that follow the same pattern: you cannot come back from certain technological leaps. Same happens with the BlackBerry: I cannot come back to it, as doing without Whatsapp seems to me like a no-no; I would trade distraction for isolation.