Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When losing e-mail is like a snow day

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:13 AM EDT, Sun April 22, 2012
A Gmail outage last week left millions unable to see their e-mail, bringing what Bob Greene said may have been a relief for many.
A Gmail outage last week left millions unable to see their e-mail, bringing what Bob Greene said may have been a relief for many.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says when Gmail briefly went down for millions last week it was like a snow day
  • He says at such moments we realize we rely on the service, know little about how it all works
  • He says he's reminded of WWII soldiers who couldn't communicate with loved ones for years
  • Greene: A little silence, digital or otherwise, can at times feel like a treat.

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- In a long line at an airport security checkpoint, the man in front of me wearily reached into his travel cases and began to unload his electronic gear into the gray plastic bin.

He had his laptop computer, two cellphones, a Kindle reading device and some sort of digital music player, each with its own power cord. He probably didn't need to throw the cords and chargers into the bin with the other devices, but he did anyway.

So, with all the devices and cords piled on top of each other, the bin moved along the conveyor belt. The TSA agent standing watch asked the business traveler to put some of the gear in separate bins. He complied.

I said to him:

"Did you ever see 'Goldfinger'?"

"The old James Bond movie?" he said. "Sure."

"You know that scene where Q, the equipment master, outfits Bond for his upcoming secret agent assignment?"

"Yes," the guy said. "Why?"

"Who do you think carried more electronic equipment?" I said. "You, or Bond?"

He laughed, and then set off to retrieve his digital arsenal.

I thought about him last week, when millions of Gmail users found out that, without notice, they were temporarily cut off from Google's e-mail service.

Perhaps you were one of them -- one of the millions who, for part of last Tuesday (the outage was said to be for more than an hour), were unable to send or receive letters on your Gmail account.

And if you were among them, did you find yourself becoming annoyed, irritated -- maybe, against your better judgment, a little panicked -- or was there a part of you that felt oddly, secretly relieved?

Did it feel like a snow day -- like getting an unexpected vacation from constant digital dutifulness?

Google at first said the glitch affected "less than 2 percent" of the users of the service; later the company revised that estimate: "We've determined that this issue affected less than 10% of the Google Mail users who attempted to access their accounts during the affected timeframe."

Ten percent would seem to be a relatively small portion of users. But it has been reported that Gmail -- which is provided at no cost to those who use it -- is utilized by some 350 million people worldwide. So if 10 percent of them could not send or receive e-mails, that, potentially, could be as many as 35 million people.

It's at times like these that we can stop and think about how accustomed we have become to assuming we can always be reached on every one of the multiple digital pathways we choose to use. That assumption has become, if not exactly a birthright, an acquired right.

And when we are reminded that we really don't know very much at all about how all of this works, and that we can be cut off from it for reasons just as enigmatic and unexplained as are the electronic mysteries that bring it to us in the first place....

Well, once the Gmail service was up and running again last week, this is what the cartoonist Brian McFadden sent out in a Twitter message to his friends and followers:

"In hindsight, gnawing off my foot while Gmail was down might've been an overreaction."

What I often think about when stories like the Gmail outage or cellphone disruptions pop briefly into the news is the World War II guys who, for four years and more, never once heard the voices of the people they loved: their wives, their parents, their children. Four years away from their homes in the United States with only the most sporadic of overseas mail delivery, no phone calls at all, having to accept on faith that the people who meant the most to them were doing all right.

Yet somehow, in the long silence, they made it. Most of them.

There's no reason at all to mourn for the pre-digital days; they were isolating and could be awfully lonely, and the long silence is never coming back.

But today, whenever there is an unanticipated short silence -- cell service goes temporarily dead, e-mail or text messaging or social networks cease to function because of an electronic burp somewhere -- it gives us the occasion to reflect upon how quickly we have gotten used to the new way, with our messages coming in and going out continually and seamlessly, day and night. Providing us the promise of never -- allegedly -- having to feel alone.

Maybe, if you were one of the people who discovered that, however briefly, your Gmail could not come in or go out, you took the opportunity to discreetly celebrate a little bit. There was a "Do Not Disturb" sign posted on at least one door of your life, and no one could blame you for not being available.

A little silence, digital or otherwise, can at times feel like a treat.

Meanwhile, somewhere out there, the tired James Bond business traveler, and all his traveling brothers and sisters, are dumping their electronic sending-and-receiving stations into yet another security-line bin.

Silence -- even when it's welcome -- is ultimately a fickle and fleeting illusion.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT