I don’t remember when my mom and I first started sending text messages.  Like all communications revolutions, it was probably out of utility at first.  We might have started exchanging basic information like when we could schedule a time to talk, or when my flight was supposed to arrive.  They never had much valence of emotion.  As I imagine that early period now, text messages were a minor appendage to our actually-existing-relationship in person or on the phone.  But then something changed.  Slowly but surely texting assumed the status of a new autonomous sphere of relations between us.  It became a way of communicating without actually talking, and now its charms are hard to deny.

I like to think that I have mixed feelings about this development because I have mixed feelings about all revolutions in communications technology.  Any new medium that allows us to flatten our interactions into bits of digitized data necessarily reduces the scope and complexity of our relationships.  I’m well aware that there is an obvious rejoinder to this argument, and it’s true that few technologies (just how many is a worthwhile thought experiment) exercise total influence over our behavior.  But the important point still stands: at the very least, a medium like text messaging permits a process of reduction that can lead to flatter, ultimately less recognizable human relationships.  In every case, the tool is the problem.

I’ve been making this argument for as long as I can remember (roughly since I’ve identified as the sort of person who says things like “for as long as I can remember.”)  But since I purchased a smart phone last summer I’ve noticed my techno-hypocrisy deepening.  If I’m to be honest, a slow slide has been ongoing for years.  Until June 2009 I resisted joining Facebook because I thought my private boycott represented a laudable example of cultural conservatism.  When I finally gave in, I planned to enter this new online world the way I imagined an anthropologist entered a foreign culture.  I started an essay called “Re-Entering A World of Text,” in which I justified my project (and my secret political agenda) in grossly highfalutin terms.  Looking back at that essay now, it’s clear that I was suffering from more than a few illusions:

My experiment is to make my participation based solely on expressions of authentic conscience.  From what I can tell, this is an uncommon use of the medium, but it may be one best suited to democratic ends.  If people are disturbed or off put by my comments and declarations, they can ignore them—but they remain changed by the contact I have initiated.  Slowly, these sorts of dynamic interactions will filter through the community of users (the body of citizens), and what is persuasive will have lasting effect…. Facebook opens up manifold possibilities for democracy, culture, and human community, but such advancement can only begin when new cultural influences encourage a discussion about right use of the new medium.

I could quote more, but it would be too painful knowing how my experiment ended.

For the next two years I recorded nearly every interaction I had on Facebook.  No matter how interesting or mundane, I copied and pasted what transpired on my wall into two word documents, one called “Facebook logs,” and a later version called “Toward a theory of right use.”  During my first few days on the ground I chose the profile picture (of me attentively reading Richard Yates’ “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness”) that still graces my page and began posting status updates that I hoped would spur intellectual debate.  Intermittently, I worried whether people thought I was making a fool of myself.

7/5/09: “Democratic nations will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”- Tocqueville

7/9/09: “Life is made of marble and mud. And, without all the deeper trust in a comprehensive sympathy above us, we might hence be led to suspect the insult of a sneer, as well as an immitigable frown, on the iron countenance of fate.”-Hawthorne

“Soooo dreamy,” a friend posted after that last one.  To which I responded,

“Yeah?  Well allow me to continue: ‘What is called poetic insight is the gift of discerning, in this sphere of strangely mingled elements, the beauty and the majesty which are compelled to assume a garb so sordid.’  Also, don’t you think it’s time someone forged an archetype on Facebook that involves foisting such quotations on one’s friends?”

I did succeed at provoking some discussion.  But over the succeeding months and years I also felt myself adjusting to the limits of the medium.  I experienced all the advantages of a world of text.  It felt good to make new friends and connect with old ones in new ways;  and it became clear that Facebook could, and often did, enhance real-world relationships.  If I was testing a hypothesis, it appeared that I had my answer.  Slowly but surely, using Facebook became ordinary, and I lost interest in my ambitious project around the same time my love life began to improve.

It was a long road from the Facebook logs to the purchase of my Samsung Galaxy SIII.  But now that I’ve caved in on the smart phone front too, certain patterns have revealed themselves.  Before each great leap forward toward greater investment in the technological habits and habitats that clog our world, I seem to need to voice some misgiving, some social critique of existing cultural practices lest I succumb to “the disease of modern times” (Paul Goodman).  I don’t know where this need comes from, or whose criteria I’m trying to satisfy.  But the plain fact is that I’m trying to avoid complicity.

Complicity in what exactly I can’t say.  The problem is difficult to pinpoint.  I feel its contours every time I notice myself gazing covetously at my friends’ iPhones, wishing I’d done more comparison-shopping before I renewed my contract with T-Mobile and bought the Samsung.  (No matter what anyone says, I’m convinced that iPhones are better than Androids; I just don’t have the courage to post this on Facebook.)  I talk about symptoms constantly; I’m even teaching a class this academic year called “Digital Culture and Counterculture.”  Still, the cycle continues.

At 12:38 am on 11/24/12, I sent my mom a photo of my sister and her boyfriend sitting by the fire in my living room.

Mom: Sweet pic really looking

           forward to meeting him

           i thought you guys would

           be too tired to stay up

           ps is it cold in your house?

           krista looks all bundled up


Me: We’re all tired.  We made

       a fire and now they’re

       going to bed.


Mom: Sounds like yall [she’s from Louisiana] are

           having a great time


           can we talk in afternoon/

           eve tomorrow?

           When does a [my girlfriend] return?

Me: We’re having dinner with

       her tomorrow.  Let’s see

       how the day goes.


Mom: K g night


Me: By the way, I’m not happy

       to see you adopting this

       abbreviated text speak,

       Mom.  The people who

       are fighting for that side in

       the battle over the future

       shape of culture deserve

       to lose.  Make us read

       more.  Even if it takes


Mom: Sorry for not responding

           last night

           i fell asleep reading your

           text tome elevating

           cellphone language to the

           heights of great literature

           Usually im more careful

           but I didnt want to take

           too much of your time

           Were headed to valley of

           Fire now [in northern AZ]

           Lots! Of rock 🙂

           Love your maternal

           ancestor of the first


6/26/13: I’m in Cupertino again talking to Apple about how to incorporate some of my wryer protestations into one or two of their web commercials.  This time we managed to come up with a few lines for a jingle and an interesting graphic.  On the elevator ride back down to the lobby I send my mom a snide text about corporate complacency via my new iPhone 6.  She gets the joke, but she isn’t surprised or all that impressed.  I’m lucky she knows I’m a little slow.

-Michael Fisher