So, happy birthday to the mobile telephone text message: first sent on December 3rd 1992 by Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis, and it read 'Merry Christmas'. Not the most auspicious start ('It was a dark and stormy night'? 'It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen'?) but an important one. Vodafone, Papworth's employee, thought that text messaging would be a useful diagnostic tool for its engineers, not a consumer tool at all.
I read yesterday that the 3.8m inhabitants of Ireland sent 8 billion text messages in the January-March period this year. I'm stunned they haven't all lost their fingers.
Why is the text message so popular? Why not just make a phone call? I think it's a control issue. If you phone somebody, you cede control. They might not stick to the point. They might talk over you. They might disagree with you. They might object to the purpose of your call. A text is a short monologue. You can't be interrupted or contradicted. You'll be late and there's nothing the recipient can do about it. You can receive a text and ignore it for a while. You have the power.
And yet the humble text message is a marker of our existential and logocentric dread. We were talking about this in my lecture on mobile and social media yesterday. We send texts as part of our attempts to organise the world around us: yet the non-reception of texts is – in Kevin Barry's words – a little ego-death, inflicted several times a day. You have no (0) messages. Nobody acknowledges your existence. You are functionally dead. The logocentrism bit relates to the way we add all these little symbols. :), :3 or whatever betray a fundamental awareness that language is always escaping from us. Our typed words can't convey what we want them to bear, and can convey things we don't want them to carry - meanings are outside our control, fought over by us, by the words that pre-exist us, and by the reader. Context and tone are difficult to communicate, so we add emoticons, or lots of !!! or 'ha ha' and any other devices designed to restrict meaning by closing down the recipient's interpretive range. It's a struggle for power.
Power's at the heart of mobile communication generally. I had a little rant about this to the students yesterday. The infiltration of mobile phones and Walkmen, iPods and the like into shared space has led to the privatisation of public space. On the train, we used to talk to each other, or read, or look out of the window. There was a sense that we were fellow passengers with a responsibility to each other to make the journey as pleasant as possible. It was public space. With the rise of personal communication and entertainment devices, we've carved up this shared space into overlapping private spaces. I can block you out with my headphones. But my headphones leak into the space. I've appropriated the public space by treating it as my own. So has everyone else. I've chosen a private virtual space in which I commune with my chosen social network rather than make any kind of connection with the unchosen social network of people sharing physical space. No doubt my fellow passengers are psychopaths anyway, hence my retreat into my own head. By doing so, I demonstrate my superior willpower: I choose not to regard my surrounding and the people in it as being of any consequence.
That's not the only way in which power is manifested in mobile technology. Take this ad for the Palm Pre, an early smartphone:
Isn't technology great? You're free to be out in the lovely countryside without every being out of touch. But look more closely. What's she doing? Working: work is no longer somewhere you go and something you do for a set period. Instead, 'life' flows together – you're meant to be 'at work' wherever and whenever you are. Emails appear at midnight: deal with it. Meeting are scheduled at the last moment – tough. Family and friends and work are all categories to be mashed together and then 'organised': you're working hard. But the payoff is visually obvious here: the young lady is at the centre of the world, distinguished from the others by her (fraudulent) autonomy and different clothing. The world, quite literally, revolves around her: friends, family and even work: they don't have autonomy or freedom. You're being sold freedom when the actual product is… you: available 24 hours a day.