In D.C., BlackBerry outage forces folks to look you in the eye

October 12, 2011

Is Oct. 12, 2011, the day Washington finally kicked its CrackBerry addiction?

On Wednesday, the glitches in BlackBerry service that had spread from Europe to Africa to South America reached North America, and with it Washington, the stubborn redoubt of the BlackBerry nation. While tastemakers in more forward-looking towns like New York and Los Angeles have long abandoned the squat device, official Washington — with its typing-prone officials, staffers and reporters — remained dependent.

That is, until sometime Wednesday morning, when the device’s reliably pulsing red light ceased to beat and a spell broke over the land.

Without e-mail service, staffers on the Hill said they talked to one another without looking down at their palms every 30 seconds. Several said they noticed a reduction in the usual deluge of incremental information and party committee spam flooding their inboxes. The e-mails that did reach them at their terminals tended to be better crafted, more pointed, thoughtful and grammatical, because they were composed from behind desks, not from atop escalators. In expense-account restaurants around the White House, reporters and their sources subtracted the now-useless oblong gadget from the modern lunch setting (butter knife, salad fork, dinner fork, dinner knife, soupspoon, teaspoon, BlackBerry.)

People even looked both ways when crossing the street.

“It’s actually quite relaxing,” Philippe Reines, a State Department official and famously obsessive BlackBerry user, wrote from his desk. “You know you’re not missing anything because nobody else can send, either.”

As appealing as Wednesday’s remembrance of things past might have been, the outage also served as a window into Washington’s more-connected future.

With the new, talking iPhone hitting stores Friday, the temptation for Washington BlackBerry addicts to drop their habit for much harder stuff grows only stronger.

In March, Politico’s Mike Allen, the most attuned of Beltway barometers, wrote that after “Hanging last night with the hip kids at the Magnolia Cafe” in Austin, where he had attended the South by Southwest festival, he realized that “nothing was more embarrassing than a BlackBerry.” Allen, who now, coincidentally, has his own Playbook app with Apple, predicted that increased emphasis on video in “news, campaigns and political mobilization” would lead Washington to “experience a tipping point away from the ’Berry.’ ”

Wednesday might have supplied that extra push away from the thumb-worn keypad.

On the trail, Republican campaign spokesmen called the outage an inconvenience. In Congress, reporters waved their BlackBerrys at the satellite gods as they couldn’t keep up with the latest news or beam quotes back to their bosses or onto their Twitter feeds. Staffers accompanying their representatives to the floor for trade talks had a hard time staying in touch with their nerve centers.

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, cut short meetings to return to his computer, where 106 unread e-mails had piled up in one hour.

“I’m pretty sure my girlfriend would have a much different view,” he said, “but let’s hope BlackBerry can forestall any future outages, at least until after the 2012 election.”

Outside of D.C., the pain of BlackBerry users was met with some sympathy — and much derision.

The Awl, a sharp and knowing New York-based Web site, posted the following item Wednesday morning: “Spare a thought for BlackBerry users, who are suffering through their third day of service outages and are also people who have BlackBerries.”

Even Reines, the BlackBerry die-hard, saw the humor in the existential crisis.

“I’m sure they’re LOL in Cupertino,” he wrote, referring to Apple headquarters.

At 4:50 p.m., service was restored for many BlackBerry users, including (full disclosure) this reporter, whose device showed a cascade of backed-up e-mails, including four from “Stewart, Charles (Commerce)” — one titled “Rockefeller Bill Would Protect Fishing Habitat, Boost Sport-Fishing Opportunities.”

And business in Washington buzzed again.

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