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Is Texting Good?

April 25, 2012

In commentary for the New York Times, John McWhorter writes that our movement towards informal writing in the form of texts and e-mails is “a sign of a new sophistication in our society.” How’s that? McWhorter compares the rise of texting to the rise of language itself. He writes: “The earliest writing was based on the way people talk, and that meant short sentences with a direct logical throughline.” By extension, texting is merely a continuation of this millennia-old communication. It too is based on the way people talk and because of the speed of modern text communication, it permits a text-based conversation.

I love that McWhorter can see the good in our movement towards text-based communication. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been especially critical of textual communication. Remember Axiom #4? “The more our lives become text-based, the less human we become.” McWhorter argues the opposite. As our lives have become text-based, we have only reverted back to the most basic form of written communication – written communication based on human speech. McWhorter ignores pesky ideas like message control, the virtual self, and the divorce between sender and recipient.

Text-based communication: Meaning is divorced from sender.

Yet isn’t there something slightly inhuman about a conversation where meaning is divorced from intention? Where the recipient of a text message interprets that message without the benefit of context, tone, or expression? Yes, text messages attempt to convey the spontaneity and improvisation of regular speech. However, texts are not democratic; texts are control. Texts allow the sender to control the interaction (although not the interpretation) and to participate in a communication at his own pace.

It’s interesting that McWhorter notes the passionate letters of Civil War soldiers. He praises texts and e-mails for giving us a language to express the informal, but fails to see just why those letters are so marvelous. Those letters, and letters in general, demonstrate reflection. They are wonderful precisely because they are not written approximations of daily speech. They clarify rather than obfuscate. The writers of these letters avoided ambiguity in favor of raw, honest emotion.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe we could do with more real emotion and less “written conversation” – more reflection and less spontaneity. I’m reminded of what I wrote before: “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.” Or perhaps E.B. White put it best: “‘Spontaneous me,’ sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers would would one day confused spontaneity with genius.” Indeed.

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