Culture

Going cold turkey off a handheld

Internet attorney Eric J. Sinrod describes what it's like to function after circumstance plucks away his PDA.

This column usually seeks to bring you up to date on cutting-edge issues where the law and technology intersect. But this week I need to write about a serious addiction.

Instead of alcohol or drugs, I want to focus on the far more pervasive dependence that prevails among the white-collar crowd--on personal digital assistants.

This has been building for quite some time. When I first started practicing law in the early 1980s, typewriter memory cards were considered by many to be "the next big thing." No longer would there be a need for Wite-Out. Some of you reading this unfortunately are young enough not to know what I am talking about.

It wasn't long before some legal secretaries actually had early generation computers on their desks. This was a luxury that did not extend to the attorneys for whom they worked.

Then there came the facsimile revolution. You knew something was extremely urgent when a legal assistant was seen running run down the hall yelling, "You have a fax!"

As time marched on, attorneys began to get their own computers and--miracle of miracles--some even learned to do their own word processing. But portable communications devices still remained over the horizon. During one of my first trials, the firm's senior partner who was working with me proudly lugged around his "portable" telephone with him to court. The phone, its battery, and all of its sprawling gear literally filled an entire briefcase. Instead of dealing with such a technological "advance," I was content to use the courthouse pay phone.

You knew something was extremely urgent when a legal assistant was seen running run down the hall yelling, "You have a fax!"

Once the Internet age started to unfold, desktop computers became more interesting to attorneys. Who could dispute the ease and convenience of e-mail? Yet, the profession still remained tethered to office desks.

Then the Palm Pilot and similar devices arrived on the scene. At first, they were not connected wirelessly to anything. Still, they allowed attorneys to store and access needed information in a handy, small place. (Who can forget the "rapture" of learning the odd symbols needed to write on a Palm Pilot with its stylus?!)

In time, portable phones truly became portable and reception improved. PDAs became wireless and helped attorneys unshackle themselves from their desks by offering the ability to communicate electronically from practically any location.

Today, technologies have converged and improved to the point that a PDA as small as a pack of cards lets me send and receive e-mail, analyze and work with document attachments, or make and receive phone calls. Then there's the non-work stuff--such as accessing Web sites, making purchases, sending and receiving photographs and videos. And that's just for starters.

Is it then any wonder that with all of this magic at their disposal to find people who cannot carry on very long without reflexively turning their attention to their PDAs? That's my particular problem. It does not matter if I'm at work, at a meeting, in a shopping center, outside, on a train, plane or automobile--or even at home.

This point was made abundantly plain to me one week ago when the scroll button on my BlackBerry broke (from overuse, I am convinced), making the unit unable to function. No problem, I thought. I'll call my law firm's information services department and get a replacement the next day. I was told that an order had been made for a number of new BlackBerrys, but they were slated to arrive within a week.

No problem, I concluded. It would be easy enough to do without the device for such a short period of time. Well...I was wrong. It felt as if a limb had been detached. Even though my functioning PDA was gone, I still behaved as if it were at my fingertips. It seemed every down moment found me reaching instinctively for the phantom BlackBerry.

I could have simply slowed down and smelled the roses for a week, living life the way I used to do before having the world in my pocket. However, while it is true that it's annoying that people constantly are turning inward into their devices in their effort to look outward, I really do appreciate the freedom afforded by my BlackBerry.

Without my PDA, I once again was stuck at my desk and was missing out on other parts of my life. With the BlackBerry, I am able to go to my kids' volleyball matches and Irish stepdancing competitions. True, I do I tend to use my PDA when there are lulls, but at least having the device allows me to be out of the office to attend these events while not falling behind.

To make a long story short, just like in the 1980s there was the song "I Want My MTV," I called our IS department again and proclaimed "I Want My Blackberry." Fortunately, they accommodated me. A super version, the Curve, showed up pronto, just before I began to suffer severe PDA withdrawal complications.