A healthy text life

Text messaging has taken the world by storm over the past 20 years. Photo / Andrew Warner
Text messaging has taken the world by storm over the past 20 years. Photo / Andrew Warner

Twenty years ago this week, when humans still roamed the Earth freely without buzzing or beeping, a UK engineer unleashed the world's first text message.

Fourteen characters flashed through transistors as digital bytes, contorted into radio waves, then flew into a company Christmas party.

"Merry Christmas".

Neil Papworth's transmission in 1992 was the birth of a new way of communicating - soon to become the method of choice for arranging extramarital sex (Tiger Woods), abusing enemies (John Banks, Andrew Williams, Scott Styris), and almost or actually walking off cliffs, running into people and crashing your car.

It has become the most popular means of communication - more common than talking, according to some studies - which makes texting significant enough to be demonised, in nervous moments, as the incipient downfall of civilisation and the loss of all privacy and human warmth.

"We've become absolutely beholden to these buggers," said Telecommunications Users' Association chief executive Paul Brislen.

"We just can't put it down - trained like Pavlov's dogs."

Worldwide, about eight trillion texts are sent a year, or 15 million a minute, and Kiwis have been among the most enthusiastic adopters of the technology.

It has taken us from walking the world unconnected, to allowing memos to reach you anywhere, even if you're ignoring calls, emails, Facebook, Twitter...

"It's quite a different form of communication - a different level of communication... There's something about text messages. It's immediate," Mr Brislen said.

New Zealand's turning point came in 1999 as pre-paid phones flourished and 20-cent texts revealed their value against voice calls.

Comments at the time explained the surprise adoption of the "fiddly" technology as being driven, mainly, by cheapness.

Even the world record for typing a text message on a smartphone is only 60 words a minute (42 without a touchscreen keyboard), for the following sentence:

"The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality, they seldom attack a human."

We typically talk twice as fast.

"I don't think anybody in the industry expected it to take off in the way it did," Mr Brislen said.

Some mobile carriers considered it a fad and tried to ignore it. But texting kept growing.

"It crept up on me, certainly: one day I was saying 'No, I don't do that kind of thing' and the next day I was."

The Herald highlighted the phenomenon in a 2000 article, "Shorthand messages fly".

Though a year late to the trend, in the classic way of media, it delightfully told of an anonymous "sensitive man" admitting that texts let him communicate with women without him becoming a doofus.

Texts have become part of our shared experiences in many other ways: rushed apologies as we're running late; snooping through partners' phones; trying to navigate a friend through a crisis when you're far away and just can't talk; casual "how r u's", which really are sudden onsets of loneliness; and late, liquid nights when full disclosure suddenly seems a good idea.

And there are the things we no longer do, like searching forever through a shopping mall because your grandmother has shuffled to the wrong exit. Has it changed who we are? And does it matter?

Earlier this year in the New York Times, a fretful Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist recounted in a column how her students were learning to maintain eye contact with someone while texting another. It would be the death of conversation, she cautioned.

Dr Sherry Turkle noted how so many of us now fidgeted for a device whenever we had a moment alone.

"Always-on/always-on-you devices provide three powerful fantasies: that we will always be heard; that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and that we never have to be alone."

Seduced by such fantasies, Dr Turkle said, we were losing our ability to savour - or even cope with - solitude, making us more prone to loneliness.

"We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don't teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely." In her view, we've been changed by the technology to become more befuddled, both in social situations and when alone.

Victoria University information management expert Val Hooper, who has written extensively on cellphone use, has a contrary view about whether we've really changed.

In one of her studies, Dr Hooper found that the abbreviated language of texting had quickly overflowed to all of our communications, with a deleterious effect on the fullness of vocabulary and grammar.

"As a lecturer, you notice it among the students: they don't use the language - this may sound so pompous, if you like - but language is so rich and the richness of language isn't explored, used and played with very often," she said.

Almost everyone was now writing like engineers, "where the language was in symbols".

In turn, the pidgin-like language of texting opened up new worlds for the disenfranchised. In Africa, the semi-literate and women who had been denied education were gaining business tools by learning to text.

"It has contributed to literacy. People who are semi-literate are nevertheless able to text in that crude form of language, and it has had a hugely emancipating effect... They have leapt across that great divide - that chasm of business literacy - and enabled them to operate very, very well," Dr Hooper said.

"It's a simple language. It doesn't have to be as grammatically correct."

Nevertheless, she said, all the new behaviours had an old drive behind them - "a compulsion to always want to be attached".

"You know, we might change our superficial type of behaviours... they might become daily practices, we might become more efficient and effective - but essentially, at our core, we're the same."

She found that text messaging, despite its ubiquity, rarely reached the level of addiction. "It's more wanting to be in touch with your nearest and dearest."

Texting has spun new invisible lines of communication through unusual places, from under dinner tables to pockets in loud concerts.

Under-the-table communications may be among text messaging's most unique accomplishments: something like secretly holding hands, or putting a hand on a knee, while everyone else keeps chatting away oblivious to the exchange of affection - but doing so across a city or even thousands of kilometres. Emails can be more deliberate, Skype more verbose, but there's nothing as sneaky as SMS.

Many great scandals have been launched by text, including sportsmen David Beckham, Ashley Cole and Woods in variously alleged and admitted affairs, politicians around the world getting too sexy in words and pictures, and countless other incidents titillating and gross.

Intimate messages are surreptiti-ously thumbed and flicked away at the speed of light, back and forth through the day - a giant network of secrecy carrying promises, nudity, break-ups, grave announcements and utter banality between the assumed privacy of pairs.

Woods once wrote: "I will wear you out... when was the last time you got [bleeped]! Send me something very naughty."

Similarly, texts have appeared in court as almost unguarded comments, with lawyers reading out messages to juries while interpreting the mangled words. (Auckland University law professor Scott Optican said he was unaware of studies describing how significant text message evidence might have become in criminal courts.)

For youth, it can be hard to be totally alone with someone. Not at school, rarely at home, by definition not in public. A private electronic world is freedom, even if it is a proxy.

In 2009, a distressed 15-year-old Rotorua girl wrote to a 27-year-old man who had engaged in sexual relations with her: "hi Pele um this might be the last text you ever get from me ... I love you with all my heart".

The girl heard back: "just f*** off I don't care if you kill yourself I not even like you a***hole".

In an inquiry into her suicide, coroner Wallace Bain discussed how texting caught people truly alone - teenagers in their bedrooms, without support, free to dream of death.

In text messaging, there's no one else around - no other diners around a restaurant to witness exchanges, passing pedestrians or neighbours to hear, no glass windows exposing expressions, not even the other person to notice you in that moment in time. There's a privacy that's liberating and dangerous.

It is an intimate world, framed by a tiny rectangular screen and barebones words, and stretching out with imagination.

We've all had pangs of feeling protective towards solitary adolescents walking around with a phone - something outsized or with an unfolding screen - held in front of them as if it were simultaneously a shield and some sort of navigation system.

The closeness between texts and their recipients gave them influence, said Auckland University health researcher Robyn Whittaker, whose text-based programme to help people stop smoking managed to double participants' quit rates.

"Text messages reach you wherever you are," Dr Whittaker said.

"The feedback that we tend to get from participants in these studies is that they feel more supported to make the change, and that someone is checking in with them about how they are going."

And they're more direct: a ringing phone conceals what you're going to have to deal with. You can even dread email headers, which require opening up to find out their truth.

But text messages have no adornments. Relatively speaking, they avoid the pageantry of other forms of communication.

If text messaging has been a world-changing innovation, it is a disappointingly basic one.

Dr Hooper, from Victoria University, said this was the story of the last decade.

At the turn of the century, top technologists guessed what could be the next big thing to change our world.

Many predicted robots.

But we got things like 160- character texts and Facebook instead. Social networking, Dr Hooper said, was decades-old even as a science.

The technologies that took off had been the most obvious ones, fulfilling our basic needs as social animals, she said.

Led by text messaging, we've gained many new ways to connect - while becoming disconnected from the physical world.

The danger of cellphone use while driving, Dr Hooper has found, is because of this disconnect. There are no pauses in communication because you've hit a dangerous part of the road. Right at hairy bend, a spouse can reveal an affair, unaware of where you are.

There has been much uneasiness about having become persistently connected electronically while being disconnected physically - and therefore distracted. Many studies, from computers to mobiles and other developments, have looked at how technology might be isolating us. Mostly, however, its use has actually turned out to be about social connection, even from our individual boxes, Dr Hooper said.

And we've recently outgrown the point where we might let text messaging dominate our lives, instead learning to balance its use with family time and other ties, she said. "The tipping point in many ways has past."


By the numbers:

1992 year of first text message
1999 texts take off in NZ
160 characters maximum (originally)
60 record words a minute speed for a text
8 trillion texts sent a year worldwide
15 million a minute


• Do you remember your first text message? Email michael.dickison@nzherald.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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