Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Txtng, AKA "I Didn't Have My Phone On Me"

The New Yorker has a piece about texting, starting with the question, "Is texting bringing us closer to the end of life as we currently tolerate it?" I enjoy the "currently tolerate it" part of the question; it seems so much more pragmatic and realistic than "life as we know it" does. The short answer, found in Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (and I won't embarrass myself by saying how long it took me to figure out what the second half of that title was), is no. David Crystal, the author, concludes that texting - even the trillions of texts that have been generated, are "no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language". He also states that most texters know how to spell. That's wonderful, David Crystal, but it doesn't really explain the rapid influx of people feeling that it is perfectly acceptable to use text-speak to write formal papers. One of my favorite professors alerted her students to the unacceptable nature of papers written in that manner, both verbally and demonstrated in a handout, before papers were due. She was younger and hipper than my two other favored professors, who probably just failed the perpetrators with nary an explanation. Crystal also compares the art of texting to the writing of sonnets, as being able to say all one needs to in 160 characters sometimes requires finesse and flexibility. It is an interesting conceit, that one of the banes of my existence shares properties with one of the most respected (and my most loved) forms of poetry. The New Yorker also examines how texting helps propagate the English language; English seems to be almost made for texting, what with its shortness of words and lack of diacritical marks. And so, many peoples of the world who text do so in an amalgam of English and their native language. That observation is interesting; about as interesting as the fact that a quarter pounder with cheese is just Le Big Mac in France (which is to say, very interesting... ...at least for me).

It is the second half of the article that I really connect with, though. It is the part that speaks to how ubiquitous cell phones have become in our every day lives. Says the New Yorker:
There is no socially accepted excuse for being without your cell phone. "I didn't have my phone": that just does not sound believable. Either you are lying or you are depressed or you have something to hide. If you receive a text, therefore, you are obliged instantaneously to reply to it, if only to confirm that you are not one of those people who can be without a phone.
I am often without my cell phone. Sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally, but my cell phone is often not on my person. My first voicemail message ever recorded said so, telling the caller who received the voicemail instead of me that my cell phone was not on me, or I was not with my cell phone - and there was a third option there. The third option was that I just didn't feel like picking up. I revel in that third option. It has nothing to do with who is calling me and everything to do with whether or not I want to talk at that particular moment. It has nothing to do with rudeness and everything to do with an autonomy that is provided by not being subject to a machine of plastic and diodes. The first two are most often why I do not pick up, but the third has made its appearances as well. In the past, I felt nothing at letting my cell phone ring; now, though, I face in some instances a perverse sense of guilt. It is partially due to my faux-Catholic, and all too literal liberal ways (liberal and Catholic guilt are both very real); some of it also seems to stem from an overwhelming paranoid thought that the person on the other end knows I'm sitting there, watching my phone ring. I get the same sense with instant messages I have no wish to respond immediately to - again, simply because I like being alone with my thoughts for some portion of the day. The New Yorker sums up why this inexplicable guilt (and paranoia) has found its way into my life:
This is a new decorum in communication: you can be sloppy and you can be blunt, but you have to be fast. To delay is to disrespect. In fact, delay is the only disrespect.
I'm normally blunt; sometimes I border on rude. Every so often (more often than not, actually), I cross the border into outright rudeness. But I often mean no disrespect. Not answering the cell phone when it rings, not responding to a text message right away, has become synonymous with the greatest snub one friend could offer another. In a world where being without method of communication every second of every day reflects on the very stability of your character, not having a cell phone becomes an offense to every person who has attempted contact in that time frame. You (I) should have your (my) cell phone on you (me), at all times. There are certain excuses for not answering, but being in a movie seems to be the only one readily accepted. And even there, my movie-going experience as of late has been disrupted by the existence of movie-texters - those assholes who can't even go two hours without 'talking' to someone else, who can't not multitask, who can't simply allow the movie to fill up their senses and their emotions. Calls and texts that come during the dinner hours are responded to with, "I'm having dinner right now, can I call/text you back?" In a world in which one's responsibility is to be always available, I wonder where I fit in. I turn off my cell phone while entering movies. I don't answer it, or even have it on me, while I'm eating dinner or watching my favorite television shows or watching a movie with my family. I answer it while I'm sleeping for the sole fact that I forget to turn the volume off and I have never reset the clock in my room after the last power outage.

For the last month, my cell phone wouldn't ring. That meant that unless I could see its little screen light up, I missed a lot of calls. Those were excused by the fact that my cell phone wouldn't ring. At times, it would become a comedy; one friend and I spent a long time playing phone tag. Sometimes it would border on tragedy, like when I was setting up a job interview and that woman and I kept missing each other. But while I love my new phone, and the fact that I will no longer be breaking the law because I have one with blue tooth capabilities and a blue tooth, that just means there is one more place I cannot conceivably be without answering the phone. And it means that I am once again bereft of excuses as to why I am not near my cell phone, and why my cell phone is not near me. The question The New Yorker asked was whether or not texting is bringing the end of life as we tolerate it; for all of their benefits (and there are many benefits), I wonder if cell phones have not already partially succeeded in that arena. The interconnectivity of life is a wonderful thing; as is having a phone on hand while stuck on the side of the road, and being able to find a friend who drove to a different parking lot than the agreed upon location, and being able to give directions to people as they are driving. But it has also changed how we view our relationships and how we view the stability of our friendships. It has made immediacy more important than substance or desire. As wonderful as cell phones are, I miss a world in which I could be out (or others could be out) and understandably not get a call. I miss a world in which the people in front of you were more important than the person whose call has just found you. And I miss a world in which a person could stand in the middle of an open field and feel completely - though not creepily - alone. Sometimes, being alone is a good.

1 comment:

John said...

"about as interesting as the fact that a quarter pounder with cheese is just Le Big Mac in France"
If I remember my Pulp Fiction dialogue correctly, a quarter-pounder with cheese is a Royale with cheese, while a big mac is still a big mac (but they call it Le Big Mac.)

There are a few other things we lose in this age of cell-phone connectivity, like being able to remember other people's phone numbers. It's no longer necessary, unless you suddenly find yourself without use of your cell phone's contacts screen. Also, no one bothers to determine rendezvous points ahead of time, so if something does happen and a person is not able to access his/her phone, you'll have no idea where to look for him/her.
As for the sonnet comparison, they're neglecting the fact that if you go over the 160-character limit it will automatically split into two messages. Where's the challenge in that?