I made two wishes today: for Gov. Gregg Abbott’s cellphone number and a Windows 10 phone. That way, when he panders to the lunatic fringe about the Pentagon possibly attacking Texas, I won’t have to sit home gnashing my teeth in frustration. Instead, I could send him the new Microsoft middle finger emoji.
But those very wishes disappoint me in a whole other, much more personal way. Wishing for an emoji and a phone number instead of only the phone number and a clear connection means I’ve finally and fully devolved into modern text culture -- and that sucks.
Way back in the early '90s, those heady days of x386 CPUs and SuperVGA, a crazy pundit somewhere predicted that the PC would evolve into a communications platform and email would become the most popular office communication medium known to man or big-headed alien. Being young, humble, and omniscient, I scoffed at the idea.
The golden age of the telephone
“Look at this desk,” I’d say to co-workers intently trying to ignore me. “What’s that gray, blinking thing next to this giant clunky monitor and massive keyboard? It’s a phone, you digital dolts -- a phone with one-touch dialing, speakers, mute, voicemail, and many other wonderful innovations. How could this possibly stop being the most popular communication medium for corporate America? Only brain-to-brain telepathy is more effective, and certainly no glorified typewriter can supplant this wondrous invention. It’s ludicrous!” Then I’d chortle.
I was wrong. But to this day, I still think I should have been right.
What’s easier and more effective than calling someone and telling them what you want? Certainly not email. As textbook after textbook on effective business communication point out, email lacks inflection. Most people can’t word so good like us writer critters. Jokes are missed or, worse, interpreted as insults. You may think sentences you've written make you sound like Liam Neeson, but they're read as if you’re Pee-wee Herman. And it’s slow, like molasses in the freezer, especially from the perspective of an early-'90s journalist whose typing skills were still developing. How could hunt-and-pecking away at those giant IBM PC keys ever challenge voice?
“Aha,” said the phone industry, even then paying close attention to every word I said, so it could meet in secret locations to decide on the most effective way to spend billions to prove me wrong. In cahoots with the Illuminati and probably Opus Dei, they developed a two-stage plan to screw Cringely, starting with sexy mobile phones that teased me into thinking I’d won.
Then the bastards dropped stage two and added texting. I fell for it hook, byte, and blinker. No way was that going to take off, I thought … and spoke … and wrote. If typing emails on a full-size keyboard can’t beat voice, how can shrinking the keyboard down to the size of a playing card be any better? (Chortle!)
Texting takes over
They got me. Apparently and inexplicably, it is better, so much so that most of my conversations (and yours, I'd wager) happen over text these days. Simple tasks that require less than 30 seconds to complete using voice can now conveniently take up an entire afternoon of pounding my ogre-sized thumbs against pixie-sized soft keys and waiting for other yahoos to do the same on their end.
That might lead you to think it’s the typing that takes so long. But the tragedy of texting, the real reason I’m so disappointed in my lust for Microsoft’s new middle digit emoji sadness, is that texting is slow for the same reason it’s so wildly, illogically popular: our species’ tendency toward weaseldom.
The vast majority of humans have a natural fear of confrontation coupled with a healthy dollop of laziness and more than a dash of procrastination. For such beings, what could be better than texting? There’s nothing better than getting an annoying 911 text from your spouse asking that you complete some chore, like picking up milk on the way home or saving her mother from a house fire. Worse, it could be a text demanding an explanation for something you did while hammered the night before.
Why is it better? Because it if were a call, you’d have to respond right away. As a text, you have an acceptable response window of several hours. Mom-in-law's house could be indistinguishable from a charcoal briquette and you won’t be to blame because text etiquette lets you ignore conversations until you’re good and ready to respond. You don’t even have to look your wife in the eye while you do it.
The true cost of texting
That’s the real evil behind texting: the lack of immediate social consequence. It used to be you’d have to ingest liquid courage before a face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) confrontation because in the interaction, the other person would have a chance to respond. Not anymore -- now you send off a snide text and turn off the phone. When you turn it back on, delete the message entirely -- no reading required.
It’s popular, it’s gleefully acceptable, and it’s inexcusable. If he were alive today, John Wayne wouldn’t send Gov. Abbot a frowny-face emoji. He’d call him on the phone and loudly speak his mind. When Abbott sputtered, “Now see here, John …,” he’d stand his ground because he’d believe he was right and he’d have the self-confidence to back that up.
Those are the kinds of onions my Dad raised me to value growing up, but decades later I’m wishing for a rude emoji and a burner phone to use on my enemies. You can say it’s weakness of character, but it’s worse -- it’s really technology enabling weakness of character. Before we get too happy about being able to flip people off digitally, we should mull over that point.