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Texting love

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Friday, Dec 14, 2007

Bookforum linked to this article about the effects of text messaging on traditional courtship practices in the Philippines. I know that sounds fascinating, and you’re probably not even reading this sentence because you eagerly clinked on the link. But as I never have understood the allure of texting, I found the story illuminating.


Clearly it makes sense when to send messages when they are cheaper than talking, as they are in the Philippines, as the article points out. I don’t know if that is true with the typical American cell phone plans, but it ought to be. I have long wished there would be a plan that would allow nothing but text messages, because I’m not much for chitchat—when forced to use the phone, I generally just want the pertinent information, two or three of the the five Ws maximum. And I don’t think I would want a smartphone, which seems like too much technology for my simple needs. I think I need the stupidphone.


Anyway, Randy Jay Solis, the article’s author, suggests that texting is apparently well-suited for courtship because it creates an extra-intimate space in which the communication takes place.


Texting allows for depth in the courtship stage, an efficient way to exchange a variety of important, intimate, and personal topics and feelings. “The mobile phone screen is able to create a private space that even if you are far from each other physically, the virtual space created by that technology is apparent,” Arnel [a random Philippine teen] explains. “No one can hear you say those things or no one else can read them, assuming that it is not allowed to be read or seen by others.”



This is probably obvious to everybody who has ever texted, but it never occurred to me that this would be so, that technology would produce a virtual space that users would regard as more intimate rather than one further step removed from intimacy. I usually construe this kind of technology as a filter, a level of protection, a way to deny presence, whereas it probably can seem more intimate than a whisper in the ear when satellites are recruited into bringing you into a sweet nothing.


Solis points out how texting facilitates the ability of strangers to meet and become intimate whenever boredom strikes. But this intimacy, perhaps because it is technologically amplified, becomes more addictive.


Texting answers the need for a sustained connection necessary to increase and maintain intimacy, but it has also made couples more dependent on each other. “It became a habit,” *Emmy explains. Partners text each other as often as they can and have a compulsion to keep the communication constantly moving. One respondent attributed this to the “unwritten rule of texting.” Clara elaborates, “Once a person has texted you, you have to reply. If you don’t reply, the person will automatically think you ignored him or her on purpose. So you have to reply no matter what, even when you really have nothing to say.”
Since most of the couples initiating a romantic relationship do not have the luxury to meet up in person or talk over the phone regularly, the frequency of texting becomes a distinct indication of their seriousness about the relationship. “To commit is to be there for the person, 24/7. Texting helps in achieving that despite of the barriers in time and distance,” *Von explains.


This pinpoints what is the probably the main reason I have resisted getting a phone all the years, beyond Luddite inertia. I’m a little bit terrified of this kind of dependency and compulsion, of being unable to ignore a message without guilt or to go without sulking when my message garners no response. It’s bad enough with email—I had to abandon instant messaging for the same reason. When the messages are flowing back and forth in rhythm, its like you are wired into your correspondent, but then if there is a gap, it’s like a betrayal, like being abandoned. I would get too impatient and paranoid in the delays, as though I were waiting for someone to pass me the crack pipe. It may takes more maturity than I can muster to presume innocence when an urgent or intimate message goes out there and just hangs, and it seems like the texting life would be filled with such mishaps and emotional misfires. In general, communications technology promotes impulsive immediacy over consideration, yielding a fraught, fragile intimacy that is only as a deep as the last message. All intimacy requires continual reciprocal contact, but accelerating that contact may be more than our limbic systems can handle. That, anyway, would seem to be part of the argument of an essay Solis cites, Heidegger, Habermas, and the Mobile Phone by George Myerson. According to these notes Myerson argues that “mobile communication is fragmented, accelerated, highly commoditized, and ultimately meaningless.” He suggests that mobile phones are a critical step in the effort to meter all communication, to translate it into a purchasable object, to have it measurable in money. It ceases to be communication and instead becomes a species of exchange. That argument verges on a semantic trick, and my susceptibility to it is probably rooted in my bias for pragmatic talk, but it still seems an apt description for texted testimonials, and their cousins, the messages exchanged on social networking sites that are little more than acknowledgments that people are scrutinizing one another. It seems curmudgeonly to complain about there being more intimacy in the world thanks to technology, I know. But ultimately, the way communication is quantified may be what seems so sinister about the heightened intimacy of texting; it turns the freedom of love into a kind of dope high purchasable on demand. And our bodies are supplanted by the devices we use to reach one another, the ones that let us be everywhere at once, and nowhere.



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