Text Messaging: Are We Erasing a Page From Humanity?
Text messaging had its debut in 1992 when a young engineer texted the words "Merry Christmas" to a colleague. Since then, text messaging or texting has gradually increased to the point that, not only are cell phone carriers offering unlimited messaging in their service contracts, legislators are being forced to battle the consequences of "text messaging while driving." A prime example of the consequences of texting and driving is that of the 2008 Chatsworth train wreck that killed 25 people. An investigation revealed the engineer had sent 45 text messages while operating the train.
Having raised two children ten years apart in age, I have been able to compare the usual differences in raising a son versus a daughter with the striking differences in technology. My son played Nintendo for hours, but he never touched a cell phone until adulthood - they simply didn’t exist. My daughter, on the other hand, was text messaging fluently by the time she was a young teen. When my son was in the military, I had to send or wait for letters the old-fashioned way - mail service. Now, I send or wait for text messages from my daughter. Aside from speed, is there really any difference? Actually, there are BIG differences - some good, but most - not so good.
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The upside to texting is, of course, brevity and the immediacy of a response. Had my son possessed a cell phone, I might have instantly known that he was out of harm’s way while he served his country abroad. Yet at the same time, I dare not imagine the impact a text message could have on him or others if allowed while he carried out his military duty. Text messages seem to lure us into their snare of expediency. Today, employers across the globe are facing the problem of employees texting while they are at work. Just like the train engineer, employees are sending and receiving "unlimited" messages on the clock. It would do little good to take away the Internet and emails, when access to the outside world is a cell phone away. Texting has statistically approached the level of emailing, if not surpassed it. No harm there, but texting has replaced something far more controversial than emails - human connectivity.
Text messaging creates a social barrier between the sender and the recipient which is vague and difficult to define. It is designed for yes and no communique rather than thought provoking or substantive dialogue. In this way, it eliminates the middle message. The middle message is important because it contains "intent," "tone," "context," "alternatives," and good old fashioned "discussion" designed to flesh things out. Texting breaks language into sub particles which stop short of what’s necessary to complete the thought process. While it may leave the thumbs of the sender relieved, it often leaves the heart of the recipient longing for more.
Text messaging requires attention, but it pales in comparison to human dialogue which is contingent on active participation and the all too important tool of "listening." With texting, you can never really be sure your recipient understood you, even if you got a response. Menu driven phone systems eliminate human contact and are a constant source of customer service complaints. In the same way, texting eliminates human contact and substantive interaction. It is readily used to reach the masses and collect their opinions or responses to personal or political issues. That is a more appropriate use if the votes count. But when parents don’t insist otherwise, texting can often become the main mode of communication between parents and their children; friends, and even lovers. We may be able to imagine the impact more readily if we look back in time.
The Lost Language of History
A litany of famous letters still abound in history. There are famous letters to the editor such as the 1897 letter by an eight year old along with the editor’s response now titled, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." There are famous letters written by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, not the least of which was the letter to a widow of five children stating,
"I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom."
Imagine this in a text message or email. How impersonal would it seem to the recipient, Ms. Bixby? Then imagine it missing from history altogether. It begs the question - does today’s generation know what’s so personal that it should require a letter or impersonal so as to justify the convenience of an email or the brevity of a text message with attachments? Can an electronic signature ever replace the spirit of humanity that travails us in ink?
Imagine Lincoln’s famous letter to General Grant text messaged instead:
Original Letter (written in 1863):
My Dear General,
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did --march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly
Text Message Version (paraphrased with the use of common acronyms):
Props, USG. I HIWTH [hate it when this happens] but I must admit you DTRT [did the right thing]. Keep GD&W [grinning, ducking and waving] & GL [good luck]. The Pres.
While this is completely fabricated and intended to humor us, the point should be clear. There is no salutation or closing in the text message which conveys affection or respect. The body consists of acronyms made popular by use and it fails to effectively and completely communicate the same message as the original letter of 156 well-thought out words. But aside from the absence of constructive dialogue in Lincoln’s faux text message to Grant, Grant wasn’t the only one may have missed the message. So would have political historians, the majority of American citizens, and the bulk of interested humanity.
History beseeches us. There are famous love letters. There are letters between Einstein and his colleagues as he uncovered some of the greatest riddles of our existence. These letters have been preserved for humanity in history books (and now online), while today, text messages are deleted from history thread by thread and rarely called upon save litigous circumstances, if even salvageable then. Saved in the memory card of a personal phone until the phone is lost or destroyed, or perhaps not saved at all.
What are we teaching our children? The great philosophers of our time pounded out dissertations on topics which were the subject of great debate and the fabric of society at one time. Are they being replaced with trite acronyms? Are we dumbing down in our race to build smaller technological components with greater speed and capacity? And I’m not pointing fingers here - I catch myself playing Yahtzee on my phone now, when I used to work brain stimulating crossword puzzles or play chess.
We’ve traveled a long way from season’s greetings to loss of life. While the loss of a single life is hardly insignificant, could we be losing even more in terms of humanity itself? While comparing notes with parents, the term "social phobia" appears more and more often today. I’ve heard it. My fiance’s heard it. My co-workers have heard it. Is it possible that our children are not learning valuable communication skills because they are able to hide behind a text message? You cannot learn the art of diplomacy or conflict resolution with unlimited acronyms and texting. You cannot explore feelings or aptitudes. You cannot fully comprehend or understand one another. Why not? Simply because texting favors brevity, while letter writing or face-to-face contact favors expression and creates the impression that the recipient was worth the time and effort of deliberate communication.
Have the great lessons of our forefathers and elders have gotten lost in transmission? Brevity and expediency are important, but what are we sacrificing to have that? Human connectivity is an essential part of humanity. Reducing it to acronyms and texting may erase a page from our humanity that is very much worth reading.