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The Great Berry Crisis of '11: We almost had to actually speak to each other

In this Jan. 9, 2009 file photo, Obama Senior Adviser David Axelrod, left, and then-Press Secretary-designate Robert Gibbs, center, check their BlackBerry E-Mail devices as then-White House Chief of Staff-designate Rahm Emanuel listens at right while President-elect Barack Obama spoke during a news conference in Washington.

Charles Dharapak/AP/Charles Dharapak/AP

History is filled with stories of those who suffered for what they believed in: St. Catherine broken on a spiked wheel, St. Sebastian's body pierced by arrows. But those painful sacrifices pale in comparison to the anguish felt by BlackBerry users during this week's interminable loss of service.

For four days, millions of people were prevented from accessing their e-mails on Research In Motion's hand-held device. That's right: For the better part of a week, no one on a train or a plane knew who had been booted off Dancing With the Stars or what was the precise location of the TEN MILLION DOLLARS promised by that nice man in Nigeria. Personal stylists were unable to contact their clients, leading to a crisis in accessorizing across the globe. Never mind the Blitz or the Siege of Leningrad; here was a test of our ability to survive against all odds.

Infuriated BlackBerry users took to Twitter to vent their outrage – which suggested that perhaps they weren't quite as cut off from the world as those Japanese soldiers who wandered around the islands of the South Pacific for decades looking for someone to shoot. Not as isolated, but a good deal more annoyed. And why not? They were forced to use laptops and tablets and other antiquated forms of communications. The ignominy of a quill pen couldn't be far behind.

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It came perilously close, for a few days, to people having to actually speak to each other. Fortunately, service was restored before that came to pass, though there were rumours of passengers turning to each other in business lounges and asking (in voices rusty with disuse): "Hey – is your CrackBerry working yet?"

It wasn't long before customers were demanding reparation, as though they were milky-eyed peasants sitting next to a river poisoned by a toxic spill, and not people who couldn't find an artichoke recipe on Epicurious.

"Day 3 of blackberry black-out," tweeted Alastair Campbell, the British political pundit who was Tony Blair's chief spin doctor. "Some free advice. Explain when you fix. Apologize when you have. Recompense after. Handling so far woefuk." This tweet had the double effect of introducing the accidental new word "woefuk" into the vernacular, and making people wonder how someone who's in the business of communication could fail to realize that there is, in fact, more than one way to contact another human being.

It was unpleasant to watch Research In Motion fall down on the job, if only for the irrational reason that I like a Canadian success story. In response to the outages, the company flailed about like a first-time toddler on ice skates. A mute toddler, at that. There was a distinct lack of communication about the lack of communication. "We know you want to hear more from us," said RIM co-chief executive Mike Lazaridis in a video message, the preferred mea culpa of the age. He acknowledged that the service disruption was "very frustrating."

If I'd been in front of the camera, I'd have told everyone to calm down and find something more useful to do for a couple of hours – play hangman with their kids, groom nits from each other – but this is perhaps why I don't run a company the size of a small planet. Apparently, "for God's sake, get over yourselves" isn't a message taught during Abject Apologies 101 in business school.

What Mr. Lazaridis couldn't apologize for was offending the great god of convenience, the sovereign deity of our age. For a few days, people couldn't summon the universe to their fingertips at the press of a button. They were suddenly left on their own, in silence, with only their thoughts for company – and that, it seems, is unforgivable.

Interestingly, in the same week of the Great Berry Crisis of '11, a study was released showing that 40 per cent of Americans who have a smart phone or tablet use the device while watching television. For the most part, Nielsen research found, people used the smart phone to check e-mail. This raised the interesting spectre of a nation with eyes fixed dully on one device in the corner to find out why the device in their hands wasn't working.

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It also made me think (not for the first time) that Jonathan Swift saw into the future. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift created the technology-obsessed Laputans, who were unable to communicate with each other until they were smacked in the face with a bladder filled with peas. A bladder filled with peas, or the dull whine of an incoming text message from someone complaining about their inability to text. One's less painful than the other – but only just.

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