The other night, eight million Blackberries suddenly stopped functioning, and many users (or abusers) of this portable e-mail and instant messaging device apparently felt bereft. About the same time a friend told me she was in a bad mood because her Internet service was down. That had happened to me a week earlier, and I knew what she meant. Cell-phone users can easily feel the same. Just what is going on with us?
An infant relies on gazes and touches from parent or caretaker to feel safe. In other words, at the earliest of ages we need attention to feel sure we are safe, or perhaps even more — to feel sure we exist. We become selves through the attention of others, and if that attention is not available, or taken away too soon, anyone can remain a little in doubt about being safe and OK and even existence it self. It used to be that as people got older they got more used to periods of relative isolation. But now, that is no longer necessary. One can go back to the short-term connectedness of childhood, or need never leave it. One always can get attention via a Blackberry, and to dispense with it, even for a meal say, seems difficult for many people.
A pile of e-mails and instant messages when you wake up reassures you that people are thinking of you, paying you attention, and if you can have this reminder, it makes you feel more in the swing of things than if you don’t. Workaholism is often a means to the same end, of course, and for some, it is the supposition that your messages are important because work related add to the feel of importance. But some do not have that, and they then turn more fully to what I call illusory attention.
I think the desire for at least illusory attention explains much about the workings of our culture. For instance, why do people tune into the Home Shopping Network or one of its rivals? Why do they buy from it? The answer to both is largely that it is a way to feel attended to, much as one might feel attend to by a salesperson in a shop or store. For most of us, HSN would not be a good way to feel one is getting attention, but if other sources of attention are not available, this is better than nothing. Blackberries or “Crackberries” are more likely to create a sense of getting real attention, and they, like cell phones also convey to others around that one is someone with something of an audience, which also works to make others feel one is more worthy of attention. But the addiction to the Blackberry or other forms of checking one’s e-mail is not so different from addiction to HSN.