For the first three days of last week, I was holed up in a meeting room in Spain with a BlackBerry that stuttered into life only intermittently, feeling like a rat in the famous 1970s stress experiment.
These rodents were subjected to a series of electric shocks; some were given advance warning, while the rest were shocked out of the blue. The first group bore up rather well while the second suffered horribly, all coming down with stomach ulcers.
The BlackBerry outages left me feeling like the second set of rats. Over and over again I checked my little machine for signs of life. Nothing. Then, without warning, the red light would flash and a dribble of e-mail would come through. But instead of feeling better I felt even more anxious. Was this all? When would more come?
This was the first of three lessons about modern communication that I learned from the outages: Control means everything. So long as we can cling to the idea that we are masters of our gadgets then all is well. When mine is working properly I check it when I feel like it (which is, in truth, suspiciously often). Yet last week proved how flimsy this control is: The gadget was indisputably in control of me.
The second lesson is about seniority. During the three days, I observed the people around me and noted their levels of BlackBerry distress. In my sample group there was a marked inverse relationship between power and anxiety. The truly powerful showed little concern at the blankness of their screens while we lesser people were beside ourselves.
There are various explanations for this. It could be that the more important you are the more you can afford to ignore other people's e-mails. If there is something that you really have to know about, someone will track you down and let you know.
More likely though, if you are the sort of person endlessly looking at stupid messages on a small screen, you aren't the sort of person to get to the top anyway.
This brings me to my third lesson, which is something I knew already but managed to ignore: most e-mail messages really are exceedingly stupid. And none is more stupid than the ones that arrive from LinkedIn.
Indeed, last week the first message to make it through my BlackBerry's blackout went like this: "Thomas K (I'm saving his blushes) wants to connect with you on LinkedIn." Well I don't want to connect with you, Thomas, as I've never heard of you. In the same batch came three further invitations from strangers and one from a friend, who I didn't want to connect with on LinkedIn either, as I'm connected to her in Life instead.
There were also two reminders about invitations I'd ignored and several updates from people who had changed their profiles.
Such was my hunger for e-mail that last week I found myself idly looking at some of this guff. I know that Tom K had a one-month internship at Goldman Sachs during which he "delivered to multiple stakeholders an analytical research report.…" I also know that a woman of 50 has updated the education slot on her profile. How does that work? Has she found a degree she'd forgotten about?
I can see that all this bragging and padding of CVs might help if you were trying to get a job. But surely the 100 million people on the site can't all be looking for jobs. The economy is bad, but not that bad.
The only thing I can think of is that LinkedIn is really a dating site in disguise. I know two people who use it like this to considerable effect. You check out the picture and the CV and take it from there. It is all above board, you can do it in office hours and with none of the embarrassment of being on Match.com.
Otherwise I simply can't see why one would want to link up with strangers in this corporate Turkish bath. The only people who I don't know who I might like to connect with on LinkedIn are Mick Jagger, Philip Roth and Bill Gates, but then I'm guessing that they don't want to connect with me. The flaw in the system is the one spotted by Groucho Marx: You don't want to join any club that would have you as a member.
LinkedIn is missing a trick in not being more brutal in making public the refusals to connect. On the e-mail Tom K sent, there is only one option: accept. But in a world where everyone is virtually connected to everyone (on days when BlackBerrys are working) the real exclusive value is in not being connected. My new business idea for a new, truly exclusive, anti-networking business: LinkedOut.