Browsing through some boxes I had stored away, I came across letters people had handwritten to me, some of them decades before, including birthday cards every year since childhood. As I was doing this my cell phone notified me of an incoming text. I texted back. A few minutes later it rang again and I again answered the text, but then I silenced the phone. I know many people who never silence their phone, and carry it with them non-stop, so no call is ever missed and no text ever goes unanswered. I’ve begun to wonder why.
As I sorted through those letters and cards from long ago, remembering people dear to me, sharing again their thoughts and reflections, I also realized there were fewer handwritten messages from the 1990s onward. As we know well, that was the beginning of the ubiquitous cell phone, aka texting. There are schools now where the curriculum excludes teaching children how to write in cursive. Some museums have a section devoted to the art of handwriting, as if it were a study of ancient calligraphy, but in reality is a study of ordinary penmanship. Everyone without exception explains their handwriting is terrible and besides, it takes longer. Texting on a phone is so much easier.
I discovered, too, that there are people under age twenty (maybe thirty?) who have almost never received a handwritten message. Nor written one.
Yet why this clamoring obsession and compulsion to just text on the phone? Why has it consumed us, no matter how fleeting much of the messaging ultimately is? I have watched people walking along the street texting, even if someone is with them. I saw a young woman on the back of a motorcycle texting. Happily, the driver was not.
What is it people who text like this think they will miss?
In truth — in a lot of ways they are missing noticing their own life. But most of all, they are missing the chance to record that life in a tangible way. Text messages are ephemeral. They don’t last. We have no idea what we texted two years ago to someone. Our relationships cease to hold the warmth of a handwritten note or letter. We are adrift in a sea of words that for the most part could have gone unsaid — that is, un-texted. Not only that, with texting, our words and thoughts are consigned to cyberspace. And since that cyberspace is not under our control, and its protocols and tools can change (unlike a sheet of paper and a pen) — and do change, daily, often radically — we have trillions of bytes that are “us” — our record — simply vanishing into thin air. Literally.
I have floppy disks I can only access if I find a computer junkie who saved the actual computer model I created them on twenty years ago. Not easy to find. Saving CDs of my work is fast becoming a non-starter — I transfer them to flash drives instead. Those flash drives are also fast becoming outplayed by the ‘cloud” for storage and soon enough will be unusable, so if I don’t transfer the flash drives to the cloud, I could lose huge amounts of my digitally recorded drafts. And soon enough, the omnipresent “cloud” will become something else (if it isn’t hacked out of existence).
Texting, however, doesn’t have to wait for protocol shifts in tools and accessibility. It is immediately obsolete. No one saves it. No box of letters for posterity, or even for our children.
Texting also rarely engages the receiver. It is mainly a forum for the sender. No emotion can be conveyed, no enthusiasm (emojis don’t do it — far too superficial to convey true feelings). No question, texting is effortless. It is instantaneous. No more do we wait a few days or even weeks for a handwritten letter giving us the latest news about each other. We already have the latest news, up to the very second! But that doesn’t mean we are listening to it or remembering what someone has texted or even absorbing it a little. No — it is forgotten. And so is a part of our life. You could say, too, so is the art of our life. We have deleted the soul of us through our incessant texting.
Texting has enabled anyone who uses it to shut out the world. I see this. As a writer I spend a lot of time in coffee shops — it acts as a kind of white noise that is always conducive to writing, but without the distractions being at home can offer. However, this is harder to do now since I keep getting distracted from my writing because I watch parents and children who are there in the shop together. The parent is more often than not glued to their phone, texting, searching, texting. The six-year-old or twelve-year old sitting across from them is not, and eats or drinks what is in front of them, and waits. Not a word is exchanged, sometimes for fifteen minutes. Whatever the mother or father is doing on the phone matters more to them in that moment than their own child, who is left to look out the window in silence. I want to get up and tell the parents they should be looking at their child, talking a blue streak, laughing — anything but staring down at a phone, excluding that child. Memories do not exist in a cell phone. That is not their purpose or function. It never was.
With texting there is no box of handwritten letters telling us we had a life of love and caring and communication with people who actually sat down and lifted pen to paper, and chose us to write to, for the sheer desire to keep in touch — not every instant, but across a lifetime.
I’ll take that.
I text five minutes a day now, ten at the most. And I have begun to send handwritten letters and cards again. Because I want a record that I was here. A real, handwritten record I existed. For a long while. Not a cyber message forgotten almost as soon as it has arrived.
I have no wish to be a ghost in the machine.
When historians a hundred years from now or archaeologists a thousand years from now decide to get an accurate rendering of the personal life of ordinary people in the early twenty-first century — it is likely they will be out of luck.
Those histories of personal lives will be inaccessible, deleted, consigned forever into empty space.