Texting is either, as the postmodernists so rudely insist, just another cultural shift in which things dropping off one end of the trailer are supplanted at the other, or a defining moment when mankind's cleverality starts to eat its own foundations. I tend towards the latter view, believing that all technology usurps human capacity in exchange for convenience, writes John Waters.
Most of us now have mobiles - some, I understand, several. Even we Luddites have succumbed to the attractions of pretending to work while sitting in a coffee shop "making some calls". We find mobiles useful for keeping track of our children and our lovers. But we are blind to what is lost in exchange for peace of mind, and what the "digital leash" does to human relationships. Does it sacrifice trust or emotional attachment for a false or exaggerated notion of contactability? Just as we can convince ourselves that we're working when we're sitting around gassing, do we convince ourselves that we're in contact with our children when, in truth, they are on a different planet? Literacy may be the least of the problems with this latest and increasing dependency. We hear much, as we did last week from the chief examiner of the Department of Education, about the damage to language and punctuation, but nothing about what mobiles do to human composure and intimacy. These aspects may yet prove far more serious.
Whether it rings often or not at all, the mobile phone is now a technology of worthiness which feeds into the subscriber's sense of self. We are busy, under pressure, stressed out; or, we are friendless, isolated, sad individuals whose phones never ring. This pathology provokes an addiction to communication, a longing for a call or a text. I have noticed both in myself and others how we tend to go about cradling our phones in constant anticipation of activity, unhinged by the restlessness that accompanies a silent phone.
The mobile is the instrument of choice of the atomising city, the communication enabler of the octupus-shaped communities an urban environment breeds. The mobile is the instrument of contact between the individual and the small cell of friends and acquaintances that seems to be the defining aspect of urban living. On a train in a modern city, you will mostly be struck by the silence of your fellow passengers. Then, down the carriage, a phone rings, initiating an exchange of what will often seem like extreme and oblivious intimacy.
But this serves to underline the disconnectedness of the speaker from the other human beings around. Our mobile phones, far from facilitating communication, cut us off from the space and people around us, making all within earshot feel undeserving of attention or affection. Proximity without intimacy is a hallmark of modern urban living, in which the most intense contacts seem to be remote from the here and now. It is as though we walk through spaces we share with others but exist in the confines of our own remote and fiercely defensive circles.
I have identified three discernible phenomena connected with texting which have yet to come to notice for their destructiveness of the bonds between human beings.
The first is what I call the coward's charter aspect, whereby people say things in texts they wouldn't say face to face. More and more people, it seems, use text to woo, and later to dump, and much of the maintenance discussion in relationships occurs in the shorthand of text, fraught as it is with brevity and remoteness. Texting is a technology of dissociation, taking the effort out of exchanges between intimates, much as a vacuum cleaner takes the labour out of sweeping.
Another worrying aspect is what you might call the escalator effect. By virtue of the distance achieved under the coward's charter, developments in relationships which might otherwise take weeks or months now occur in minutes or hours in, so to speak, a tit-for-tat sequence. Kites are flown, temperatures taken, hints dropped, and, abruptly, a couple find themselves, for example, in bed. But since the only connection has been between two battery-operated devices, the human beings find themselves face to face, or naked front to naked front, as strangers.
The mobile tends to consolidate those connections we've already made, while operating as censor and judge on those we may hope to make. Thus, a relationship, certainly in its problematic dimensions, is conducted not between two individuals but between the respective kitchen cabinets surrounding these participants, which frequently act as unannounced mediators and spin-doctors in periods of turbulence. A lover leaves a dinner table where an argument is taking place, goes to a lavatory and texts a friend. The advice comes back in 160 characters and is carried back to the encounter.
Thus, the hurts and prejudices of the detached, rather than the dynamics of personal passions, dictate the hopes and chances of the couple arguing at the next table.
To hell with punctuation - what we should be concerned with is the future of romance.