Texting and Our Two Selves
“The flesh became word and dwelt among us.” – Technology Uninhibited 1:1
Sometimes I feel like a broken record. “When I left America in 2009…” I won’t apologize for that, so you’re going to have to bear with me as I do it again. When I left America in 2009, texting was not the most popular form of communication, at least among people my age. My friends and I still talked by phone. Or, no one thought it strange when I called over something trivial and insignificant. Now, some three years later, texting dominates how we communicate. People even text when it’s more convenient to call.
I’m not concerned with when or why this happened. Instead, I’d like to focus on what it means to text and what it means that we prefer to text above all other forms of communication.
Texting is an inevitability we all should have seen coming. Since e-mail made mass, instant communication possible, the written word finally triumphed in its eternal battle with the spoken.1 Never before in human history have so many people been so comfortable with writing. All of us have become more accustomed to the simple act of writing. Of all the technological progress that we have made in the last one hundred years, our near uniform literacy in this country would probably most astonish a visitor from 1912. But what does it mean that we prefer writing to speaking?
Inherent in the act of texting is a withdrawal from intimacy. The written word is couched in ambiguity. Texting then lets us off the hook by permitting plausible deniability. “I didn’t mean that,” we reassure an incredulous friend, lover, or family member. Thus texting eliminates intimacy by divorcing us from our own words. There is a separation between the sender and the sent; as David Mamet put it: “It’s only words…unless they’re true.”
“Divorcing ourselves” is an apt expression that describes what this technological paradigm shift has wrought. The Internet permits us to create idealized versions of ourselves in our Facebook profiles, in video games, on online dating sites, and in chat rooms. In our attempt to become masters of our own images, we create two selves; there is our true self and there is a virtual self. More and more we “become” our virtual self. Not in the sense that our true self becomes like our virtual self, but that we withdraw deeper and deeper into our virtual identity. At some point, our true self becomes unrecognizable.
Texting too creates the illusion of living “real life” as our virtual other. Texting gives us control. We can respond to our friends at our leisure. We can craft a funnier reply, a sharper rebuke, or any message that fits more with the idealized version of ourselves that we have constructed. We need not fear misinterpretation; often that is the thing that we most desire. We want others to think about us, or rather, to think about our words. We want our friends to think us cool, interesting, mysterious, like our virtual selves. By stripping us down to words, texting makes us enigmatic.
The true self is lost. There is no longer a place for us to put our true selves on the line to be judged. Instead, we crave the power and the control texting gives us. It is another dark Faustian bargain: for control over our image and our message, we give up a part of our true self and the ability to truly connect with the people we love through the world’s oldest form of communication – the spoken word. Where this is all taking us I will explore in the months and weeks to come.
AXIOM #4: The more our lives become text-based, the less human we become.
1 One could argue that the written word triumphed when someone wrote down Homer’s Odyssey for the first time. When I say that the written word has triumphed, I mean that it has conquered every aspect of human communication. The spoken word had hung onto a communications monopoly since time immemorial. Texting and e-mail are the ultimate trust-busters.