OREM, Utah — After four convenient but usually bad-habit forming years, I canceled my Blackberry email/data plan with T-Mobile last week. To my surprise, I was amazed that my email would actually wait for me on the computer, as opposed to following me around wherever I went. Now, if I’m away from my desk, my email will tell me how many unread messages I have upon my return, so as not to overlook anything. (Some fancy email programs even support audible alerts, such as “You’ve got mail!” Really neat stuff.)
In a flurry of discovery, and in search of more answers, I asked a representative of ARPANET, the inventor of email, for comment. “The great thing about email is that it’s free, provided you don’t give money to your cell phone provider for the same service,” the spokesman said. “And unlike the Post Office, you don’t have to put a hold on your mail if you’re away, say on nights and weekends. If it fits, it ships—which is all the time.”
There are other benefits to what my grandmother calls “computer mail.” For example, email (or “e-mail” as the Associated Press calls it) was invented as a form of asynchronous communication, meaning the user responds when he or she is ready, as opposed to the synchronized communication of voice calls and instant messaging. “I can’t think of one email-enabled phone user who hasn’t diluted the beauty that is asynchronous communication,” says Wiley Peters, an unemployed email consultant. “Almost all of them interact with a new message as they come in, instead of batch processing their inbox at a later time to achieve priority of responses.” In other words, data plans have made inhabitants of planet earth obsessive compulsive about their inboxes—slaves to email and social sites, as opposed to patrons.
But people expect immediate replies to email, right? None of this waiting upwards of a half-day or (gasp!) a full working day to respond. “Most professional users of email really aren’t as important as they think they are,” says Art Vandelay, director of The Email Institute for a Better Tomorrow. “Less than 1% of the working population would incur legitimate business losses (say over $10) for not responding to an email within seconds, minutes, or even hours. So the idea that people should be checking email on phones at all hours of the day is more ego-driven than functional. Plus, it’s a total buzz kill on your personal life.”
Some professionals worry they will upset a demanding boss or client who doesn’t respect family life, well-deserved vacations, or designates non-emergencies as actual emergencies to get a faster response. “Uh, that’s really not someone you want to work for,” says one local area entrepreneur, one of the few people able to make living between the hours of 9-5 selling widgets at a fair price, instead of wasting time during the day talking about what Kanye West said last night or trying to figure out what ’80s band he’s most like on Facebook.
So who’s to blame for the rise of portable email abuse? Al Bino, better known as Verizon’s “Can you hear me know?” guy, says its providers like his employer that shoulder much of the responsibility. “These freakin’ people charge upwards of $60 for slower data plans than you probably already have at home. Of course they’re going to tell Americans they need anytime access to work email and tweety tweets—it’s more money in their pocket!” According to Bino, who, by the way, is in a contract dispute with Verizon for charging his account during the filming of commercials and for causing him to be typecasted, “There’s no way in Hades a text message should cost four dimes to send or receive. It’s all about the Benjis for these people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (sic)”
Harry Cox, who squanders four hours a day online reading how to boost his productivity, says gadget sites are partly to blame. “Instead of working in real-life situations, these gadget junkies celebrate the latest and greatest crap in mobile technology, without ever testing the practicality of such products. I’m fully convinced these guys have no lives at all,” he conspires.
But it’s a free country. Marriage to one’s smart phone can be a form of companionship, right? “Actually, that’s a bunch of bologna,” says Fonda Peters, founding member of Human After All, an advocacy group (not to be confused with the excellent Daft Punk Song) that advocates for the preeminence of in-person beings over online ones. “Sharing experiences with family and friends while they’re standing right in front of you is a lot more worthwhile than obsessively cleaning your inbox or updating your status to ‘standing with friends.'”
Not everyone is sold on the idea of phones just being phones, however. “Whatever!” says Candace Spencer, a 15-year old from Highland Parks, who credits a measurable improvement in her life after upgrading to an iPhone. “I mean, it has like over a gazillion apps that aren’t available anywhere else, except for maybe the internet.”
Troy McClure, a community business development value-chain operator from Silicon Valley shares similar feelings. “Without a data plan, I’m forced to plan ahead—or worse, consult one of the many online-enabled computers at my office or home before making a decision.” As McClure so eloquently puts it, “That totally blows,” before adding, “At the end of the day, I like to hit the ground-running, and an always-on socially-enabled data plan on my 3G phone is a mission-critical win-win. After all, it’s not like I use my phone as a status symbol or to give the appearance that I’m working harder than I really am.”
“I’m just too busy not to be using a data plan,” says Chuck Waggon, a self-described “important professional” who makes $18 an hour as an underpaid software engineer. “Even legislators use taxpayer money to buy Blackberries, and look how productive they are!”
Vandelay, on the other hand, says it doesn’t really matter. “So long as you respond to messages in a timely manner, it’s irrelevant what technology you use,” he explains. “Just do me a favor and stop using so many smiley faces and exclamation points after sentences. It pisses me off!”