Ode to a Dead Blackberry.

My Blackberry died quietly in the night on Tuesday. I’d put it on my night-table, as usual. When I woke the screen was blank except for the characters JVM 523 and a reset button – which didn’t work.

I took it to the Verizon store in the Mission district. Walking the six blocks from prim, yuppie Noe Valley to the Mission is like taking a wormhole that deposits you in Mexico. The store was sandwiched between a Payless shoe store on one side and A.J’s Meat Market on the other.

The clerk’s hair was slicked back and his tie said, “I’m under 20 and don’t know how to tie these things yet.” I handed my Blackberry over to him the way I would hand my cat Elvis to the vet.

“JVM 523,” I said mournfully.

The clerk got tech support on the line and conferred with them while I wandered around the store peering at new cellphones. He beckoned me over ten minutes later.

“It’s dead,” he said.

“You can’t just reload the operating system?”

“They say not.”

“How can software kill a Blackberry?” I said. “It’s just code.”

He shrugged. He hadn’t been hired to answer philosophical questions.

“There’s no way to get my phone numbers out of it?” I asked.

“They say not.”

But, he told me, for fifty bucks they could send me a new one overnight.

“Oh, all right,” I said.

I walked out of the store feeling naked. No connection to the Internet. Just me and my lone autonomous body.

The street was full of avocados and plantains, $15 knapsacks hanging from awnings, and rows of watches in grimy store windows. Crinkly-faced women pushed kids in strollers and grabbed their hands to keep them from pulling no-brand socks out of cardboard boxes.

In the U.S., stores have big things spaced far apart. In Mexico – aka the Mission – they have lots of little things stuffed close together. I roamed and browsed. The aisles in one store were so narrow I had to flatten myself against a wall of womens’ underwear to let two little kids go past. One of them was carrying a Transformers robot.

I was in the real world; the material world. No email. No way to call or be called. No google. Naked.

My Blackberry had changed my life. A few weeks before I had used it to look up the height of Twin Peaks while I was walking up them. Took thirty seconds; I pulled up google, typed “twin peaks san francisco”, and got the answer: 922 feet.

A factoid? Yes – but knowing it gave me an intuitive sense of what climbing nearly a thousand feet felt like. Heck, all I had to do was go up and down thirty times, and that’d be the equivalent of climbing Everest.

Well, maybe not.

But it had come in even handier when I visited a remedial math classroom at Gallaudet, the nation’s university for the deaf in Washington D.C. The professor spoke in English with an interpreter translating into ASL, but it was a polyglot situation because she signed occasionally as well. She was enchanting to watch; as she talked about functions and slopes, she gestured as if drawing them in midair.

The class handout gave me her name: Regina Nuzzo. I unholstered my Blackberry, held it under the desk at an angle, called up google, and stealthily typed her name into it. I scrolled down the results with the thumbwheel. In about two minutes I knew that she was thirty-five years old and had a progressive hearing loss. She had a Ph.D. in statistics from Stanford and had done a postdoc at McGill.

And – oh, this was interesting – she was a science writer. She’d just done a story on hybrid cochlear implants. I read a few screenfuls of it.

“Who’s got the answer to question 4?” she was saying. “Anyone? Does anybody have it?” Behind her, the interpreter was signing rapidly. (I’d figured out how ASL does fractions.)

I looked at Regina thinking, Wow, another deaf science writer with a Ph.D.

The ability to consult the planet’s external memory while walking down the street, or sitting in a classroom, is more than a matter of convenience. It means having the planet’s knowledge at your command in daily life.

And having that knowledge gives one a richer relationship to the world. Now I knew Regina’s background, her history, her interests. It gave her depth, dimension, a local habitation and a name.

She swept one hand around the classroom, taking in all the students, tapping her thumb and index finger together. It was the DO-DO-DO sign, meaning, in this context, “What shall we do now? What’s next?”

I had used my Blackberry to access the Internet constantly. To find out: How high am I climbing? What do the critics say about this movie? Where can I find tent stakes near Market Street? How many people were at Burning Man? Where are Scientific American’s offices relative to here? When is the next bus coming?

And, most profoundly, Who is this person?

I’d had to be impolite, though. I’d been peering at my hands while she was talking. (Fortunately, I was sitting way off the side.) And it had been unwieldy. Take out socially ostentatious gadget, type, wait, scroll, read. My meat fingers; an awkward soapbar-sized gadget with a tiny screen and a slow wireless link.

Suppose it was possible to implant circuitry in the head that would enable people to simply think google searches and get the answers immediately?

That may sound completely and utterly barking mad. But I’m a guy who already has a computer inside his head feeding him data. Two, now, actually. Certain ideas come easier when one has 32 electrodes in one’s head.

How could it be done?

You would have to have some way of physically monitoring brain activity and triggering it. One possibility is to put thousands of nanometer-sized wires inside the brain’s capillaries to detect and influence neural activity on a large scale. Let’s assume that such a rig could be safely installed. A big if, but let’s assume for the sake of argument. (I co-wrote a PBS show, The 22nd Century, exploring the idea last year.)

Let’s also assume that it could be entirely installed within the head, and powered from within as well. These aren’t such big ifs anymore. It’s already possible to power implanted devices with lithium-ion batteries that are recharged inductively through the skin. (See my story “The Naked Ear” in the January 2008 issue of Technology Review.)

Then you would have to have software that could interpret the data. As it happens, I stayed in touch with Regina after the class, and soon afterward she wrote a story on brain-scanning. She reported that researchers could tell when people were seeing particular actors on a TV screen by watching their brain activity with an fMRI scanner. They’d recorded what happened when the subjects were known to be seeing those actors, and looked for the same activity again. It takes a lot of math and computing power to do it, but the principle is straightforward.

The neural activity corresponding to inner speech ought to be relatively easy to decode, since it’s such a stereotyped activity. That would make it possible to issue computer commands by “speaking” them to oneself.

Such things are being done now, on a simpler level. At Brown University, my alma mater, researchers are implanting arrays of 100 electrodes in the brains of totally paralyzed people that enable them to control mouse pointers by brain activity – that is, by thinking. At the University of Pittsburgh, monkeys with similar brain implants have learned to control robot arms to reach out and bring food to their mouths – again, by thinking.

Interpreting inner speech is going to be harder than that, but there shouldn’t be any reason in principle why it can’t be done. This month a new study came out in which researchers were able to identify which of ten pictures a subject was looking at. What was especially new about this study is that they were able to do it based on other subjects’ neural patterns – suggesting that in at least that respect, human brains are not all that different from each other.

And it should be possible to give the user neural stimulation that would be perceived as speech. It wouldn’t be that different from what auditory brainstem implants do now. An auditory brainstem implant directly stimulates the auditory cortex with implanted electrodes. (It’s different from a cochlear implant, which stimulates the inner ear.)

Visual input – that is, making the visual cortex believe it sees something like a computer screen — would be harder. The eye moves rapidly to focus on various areas of the screen, so vision is the outcome of retinal input and motor commands. It’s not a passive input process. But there is a great deal of research being done to create retinal implants – devices that restore vision to the blind – and it should carry over into what we’re considering here.

Now that’s a lot to go through to have a Blackberry inside the body.

But consider how profoundly it would change the user’s relationship to the world. The barrier between the body and the world of information, now mediated by clumsy fingers and strained eyes, would disappear. The global Internet would become one’s own long-term memory.

It’s quite a thought.

It would make us a different species.

My Blackberry’s given me an inkling of what it would be like to have that kind of mind. When it died, it was like losing part of my mind. JVM 523: instant technological Alzheimer’s.

All day my left hand kept futilely reaching toward where I wear it on my pants. But the replacement arrived by fedex the next day, as promised. I lost none of my email, because it was all stored on a server. I lost a few memos and a bunch of phone numbers, but those can be stored on a server too. Now I could throw my Blackberry into the bay and have everything back within 24 hours.

Much later, when I told Regina what I’d been doing in her class, she’d been amused. “Cyberspying,” she’d said. “No, I wasn’t,” I protested. “It’s not spying since it’s all public information.”

Although I did have to go out of my way to get it. But such information is getting to be as visible as one’s clothes.

Indeed, the very idea of privacy is eroding. Television shows exhibit personal dramas to the world. MySpace pages confess all. Cellphones have erased the distinction between work time and personal time. As New York Magazine put it, “More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would…every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure.”

I think the time is coming when it’ll be considered rude not to google someone. How gauche, to have to ask someone where they went to school.

Gallaudet felt like a trial run for that kind of future. Everywhere I went I saw hands flickering like leaves, livid with meaning. A signer could get a synoptic overview of the campus’s social life just by glancing around the cafeteria. Every conversation at every table could be read off as comprehensively as a pilot glancing across a bank of instruments. “It’s like living in the proverbial fishbowl – there’s no secrets,” another professor told me, rolling her eyes. It felt like a glimpse into an intimately wired future. To have that kind of awareness; to be so knowing, and so known.

If you’re deaf, such a scenario is extraordinarily attractive. Above all else, deafness strikes at community. At communitas: camaraderie, fellowship, solace. My Blackberry links me to a larger world in ways my ears don’t. Having one electronic ear is far better than having none, but it still gives me only a monochromatic trickle of information. It will be interesting to see if activating the other one – four days from now – reduces my attachment to the electronic world.

Regina and I confer a lot these days. She doesn’t have a Blackberry, though.

She’s got a SideKick.


  1. Hi Michael – I enjoyed the story, particularly with the happy ending – you got re-united with a Blackberry!

    All the best.


  2. Give me a SideKick any day. 🙂

  3. CrackBerry, they call it…and I’m another hapless addict…

  4. You have got to love Verizon default tolerance system. I have went through oodles of phones without losing a thing.

    Good luck with activation today 🙂

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