Leaders and Technology; Buying a Blackberry

Yesterday my wife phoned me from the Verizon store on 6th avenue and 21st street where she and my son went to upgrade his cell phone. It turned out that it was time for the Verizon carrot trick: that little extra inducement that ensures that we continue to play on the Verizon playing field rather then jump to another carrier. As it turns out, since we’re on a family plan, the carrot was especially juicy. If I would renew my family contract I would be entitled to a Blackberry at a highly reduced price and my son would get his phone for free. I have never before thought about even using a Blackberry. It seemed a bit too 21st century for me.

While President Obama and his crew made Blackberries and their facsimiles a fashionable, almost youthful, statement–I’ve long ago given up the idea of being fashionable or youthful. And in truth, as an academic—how connected do you really have to be?

The fact that my wife was even suggesting a Blackberry to me I took as a compliment. Maybe, in her eyes I was a bit more 21st century then I assumed. With a little spark, and a slight sense of temptation, I decided to walk downtown and meet my wife and son at the Verizon store. I am an academic so testimony, affirmation, data, and experience mean a lot to me. I decided to take a young colleague of mine to join me so I could get the expertise of someone who already had Blackberry Fingers.

Walking down 6th avenue I realized that this wasn’t a private decision—it was a completely public one: it was a statement. The Blackberry isn’t just a sliver of technology you can hid in your pocket, but it’s a bulk; a in-your-face-statement, visible to everyone. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I entertained the question of whether I wanted to make a Blackberry or an iPhone statement.

Last week, I had dinner with good friends in a fashionable Brooklyn restaurant and they displayed their iPhones with a youthful excitement that left me envious. I was reminded of a scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevia goes to see his son-in-law’s “brand new sewing machine.” The son-in-law is excited and energized by the new gadgetry that even includes a floor pedal. Tevia, like me, was overwhelmed with the complication of it all, entrapped by his age. The iPhone wasn’t for me: I wasn’t that youthful. Even though I live downtown, I’m not the typical ‘downtown; hip’ person. I rarely bicycle. I recycle because I have too. I appreciate good design—but I could live without it. And, for the most part, I am happy with my old iPod. I was looking for a more somber, grounded, image. More Upper East Side. My young colleague quickly decided that a Blackberry was more me then an iPhone.

As I walked into the Verizon store my wife and son escorted me to the Blackberry shelf. Suddenly, my hesitation began to overwhelm me. I called a friend of mine, a retired Cornell dean, who told me he was thinking about a Blackberry for the past year as it had come highly recommended by his son. So, I called his son, who wasn’t home, and I found myself asking his wife about her husband’s feelings about Blackberry phones. As I said academics are obsessed with the collection of data.

By the time I got off the phone I was close to making up my mind when my 13-year-old son reminded me of the number of electronic devices I don’t use, can’t use, and won’t use. So, I began serious reflection. I love my semi-seclusion. I love not being over-exposed. I find emails too overwhelming and intrusive. I’m nearsighted and I have trouble reading small keyboards. I’m a poor typist. I like reading real newspapers. On the train I always sit in the silent car. And, admittedly, I am a bit of snob when I see people, in the dead of winter; check their mobile devices like addicted smokers. Most importantly, the Blackberry would deny me the most important thing we all need: plausible deniability. I can never again tell someone, “I didn’t get your email.”

I made up my mind: It wasn’t me. I began to walk out of the store, but then I turned around, came back, and confronted the salesperson and bought the Blackberry because there was always the possibility that I would need it.

That’s the problem with fads. That’s the problem with making decisions to cover all our bases. We buy devices in case we need them, because of that ‘what the heck’ feeling, or, the inevitable, ‘what do I have to lose’. The purchase of technology is one more example of passive decision-making. The type of decision-making that overwhelms us with gadgets, overwhelms us with information we don’t need, overwhelms us with projects we should have never taken on and undermines our proactive capacity.

Real leaders should be more reflective and more decisive when purchasing their Blackberries or iPhones.

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