Can You Hear Me?
I often find myself thinking of why we send text messages. Like the other day. I wound up caught in what seemed like a conversation length discussion, written out purely on the keyboard of my phone, exchanging series of three or four sentences at a time with a friend. “Why don’t we just use the phone?” I wondered. Maybe it was simply easier not to.
On another recent occasion, the same wonder entered my mind. After calling a friend and getting the answering machine, I received a text message less than a minute later asking, in way that seemed to me glib, “what’s up?” As it turns out, my friend was at work-a valid excuse for not answering the phone, a tactic I’ve deferred to myself. But I can’t help but notice that on other occasions, many people seem much more willing to type out their correspondence than to actually use the telephone function of their phone. Perhaps this doesn’t mean anything.
But one might wonder about what it means as the fate of the cell phone as phone seems unclear with the recent surge in smart phone consumption. It seems as though there are more people staring at the screens of their phones than using them as mobile telephones where people talk to each other, where they listen to one another’s voice.
Ok, our means of communication are not static. The telegraph revolutionized the letter, the phone the letter, the cell phone the land-line, the smartphone our sanity. And perhaps this doesn’t mean anything. But I want to say that our reluctance to actually speak into our cell-phones, a wonder that we no longer seem to appreciate, and our willingness to send text messages-or engage in any number of other functions now offered on the cell phone-is symptomatic of a larger trend, something that feels more and more like the abnegation of emotion.
I’m no Luddite. I find technology wonderful, fascinating, even liberating. In light of what seems like a pervasive willingness to dispense with the emotional connections which our technology allows, in favor of communication itself-the ease of communication, communication for communication’s sake- I wonder, though, if technology is even at fault. But then, who are the curmudgeonly critics to blame? Are people complicit? Corporations? Capitalism? Though some of these culprits are more complicit than others, they all seem to bow to perhaps a larger master: the logic of ease. And I think this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in our increasing disuse of the phone as a phone.
When speaking to someone on the phone, the human voice-though sometimes distorted or unclear-beckons to an interlocutor on the other line. The voice seeks recognition and acknowledgment through verbal cues, tones, breaks in speech-all those contours and signals that make conversation intimate or awkward or romantic or painful. The voice conveys the stuff of emotion: it carries the self’s fluctuations in mood, responsiveness, ambiguity, and attention. Though I prefer face-to-face communication, I’ve always enjoyed long (or short) phone conversations for this reason. “I can’t talk right now, I’m busy,” said over the phone, is like a different planet to me than the same words written out in the form of a text-message.
Yes, the limitations of text messaging are obvious. Sometimes, text messages are more convenient; sometimes they’re just easier.
But what’s at stake with ease?
As we disengage from the (potential) intimacy of the phone conversation in favor of the text message, there is a sense that we are disengaging from ourselves. It seems as though we can we no longer bear the emotional dynamics of a conversation. Are they simply too much to bear?
As we evade these dynamics, we come to fear them. And in the process we come to fear emotion itself, a fear that comes at the expense of self-knowledge. The logic of ease comes to replace our self-understanding, gained through frank engagements with personal emotion and relationships with others. At the expense of such self-knowledge we seek ease, while our longing for connection chases idly behind, gasping for breath. We inhale these gasps reluctantly, like swallowing vegetables as a child facing the promise of ice cream. As we stare at screens, as we avoid the voice, we evade emotional connection. What’s at stake with ease is that we come to fear real emotion, the emotion carried by the human voice. And in turn, we come to fear ourselves.
Speaking to another, though obviously different in many ways, carries much of the same emotional resonance as sitting alone, where one is forced to confront one’s emotions. Of course, one’s interactions with another may be superficial or vary according to intimacy or circumstance. But the point is that there is a fundamental awareness of those contingencies-they are ever present in our consciousness lest we try to kid ourselves. But the logic of ease-the logic behind evading the phone through the text message-lets us do just that: we escape the contingencies of emotion that the voice carries with it for the same reasons we cannot bear sitting alone with ourselves, forced to confront the contingencies of our own self-knowledge. As ease becomes the hyper-imperative of the twenty-first century, we learn to forget this connection between emotion, self-knowledge, and connection with others. In fact, we come to fear it. And in turn we fear being alone, alone with these realizations; alone with ourselves.
Perhaps this doesn’t mean anything. I use text messages every day. I enjoy them. I admit my hypocrisy. But we should demand more of ourselves, given our incredible capacities for ingenuity and development, than the relinquishing of the self to ease-the text message over the phone call. As the logic of ease replaces the dynamics of feeling, can we hang onto, at the very least, the human voice?