When I was a child, my brother and I played a computer game based on the Indiana Jones movie franchise. In the course of his adventures, Indy would sometimes come to a delicate impasse that required tact and nuance to resolve. Some adversary was blocking his path to a relic or treasure (including, oddly enough, one of Plato’s lost dialogues), and he needed to say just the right thing to get past them and on to the next challenge. The game offered players a selection of five or so sentences to choose from. The world would sit there in 8-bit paralysis and wait while we pondered how to make it do what we wanted. Press enter on the right sentence and pixelated Indy would sail through. Choose something inapt and game over.
We are all playing Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis now. A significant chunk of our lives involves gaping at screens, finger hovering over the send button, weighing our options, strategizing, obsessing over what will happen next. When we’ve finally made our decision we sit back and wait for the program to update — the response to land in our inbox, the algorithmic world to process our input and tell us if it has produced the hoped-for effect — or, God forbid, backfired and ruined us forever.
The interpolation of screens into the fabric of our lives has changed the character of our interactions in innumerable small but important ways that we have scarcely begun to recognize, reckon with, or reconcile ourselves to.
Messages composed of text, of course, predate digitized text messages by some time: telegrams, letters, and stone tablets all involve communication over time and distance by conveyance of the written word. The difference between those older means and today’s text message is not just one of speed, however. The text message arrives so quickly that the sender is, at least potentially, present to the receiver. That is, text messages involve telepresence — presence over a distance. This means there is perhaps less to learn from comparison with these older technologies than there is with the technology text messages have so often, at least among younger generations, come to replace — telephone calls.
In letters, the writer and the recipient are almost always absent from one another. This form of written communication is more like the way an artist communicates with an audience. She deposits meaning in an object and the viewer happens upon it and revives it, reading and interpreting the message. Even with email, the recipient is presumed absent, and this is reflected in the application to email of epistolary norms — awkward, tenuous, and negotiable though they may be. An email is only rarely an immediate move in a conversation, the way a text message potentially — but not necessarily — is.
The telephone, on the other hand, inaugurates a new presence over a distance in communication. Though it is taken for granted now, the telephone’s shocks and dislocations at the time of its adoption were quite serious. People worried that the mere presence of the phone in the living room would interrupt the calm of daily life and introduce new potential invasions and anxieties into the home. (They had no idea.)
The critic Walter Benjamin wrote of the newly installed telephone in his childhood home: “The noise, with which [the telephone] rang between two and four, when a schoolfriend wanted to speak with me, was an alarm signal that disturbed not only my parents’ midday nap, but also the world-historical epoch in whose midst the nap had come about.”
The phone’s disembodied voices even suggested the possibility of contact with a spirit world — “presences.” If our voices, conveyors of our spirit, could be so definitively separated from our living bodies, perhaps they could outlive us.
With the telephone we first make contact with people who aren’t there. And for the first time, we — as we do so often now — communicate with others even though we are alone.
During a telephone call a real connection is established between the participants. They are not literally in one another’s presence, but their voices convey more or less instantly back and forth. The telephone is a decent, if somewhat uneasy and uncanny, approximation of a real human conversation.
This engenders brand new anxieties. We can never be quite sure what we say is getting through. We require more verbal acknowledgment than in-person conversation, and we make some alterations to our speech, heightening volume and clarity, avoiding expression that relies on gesture or facial expression. It often takes more time and involves more missteps to get on the same footing with someone over the phone. And even when we find this footing, it is far from stable. We can never be sure that the other party is following us, whether they’re even paying attention, or what they may be doing behind our backs.
But, despite these difficulties, we do for the most part find some kind of common ground. We connect. One reason this is possible is that it is necessary. A phone call is a delimited event, with a beginning, middle, and end. It takes place — even if it doesn’t have a place. The participants are thrown together in the no-place between receivers and, like two strangers thrown together in an elevator, they’re obliged to move the conversation forward — to cooperate and articulate some kind of mutual understanding, to push the call through an ordered progression and resolution. As in the elevator, there’s no question of escaping the phone call once it’s started, except through unthinkable rudeness. Even a relatively brief hesitation or a slight shift in tone will convey great heaps of meaning.
Does a text message conversation take place? It has a beginning, I suppose, though who can remember when it was. Does it have a middle? An end? An ever-expanding middle maybe, half-punctuated by a series of tentative ends — and perhaps one final, devastating one.
These questions are harder to answer because a text message conversation involves a curious mixture of presence and absence. As with a phone call, messages go through instantaneously, but as with a letter, they don’t impose any immediate claim on the recipient, unless, that is, the recipient takes them to. They are present with the option of absence, absent with the option of presence.
When you receive a text message you are presented with a choice: you can treat it as you would a phone call and immediately answer and strike up a back and forth, or you can treat it as a letter — letting it linger, inspecting it for possible implications, reading between the lines, trying out various interpretations — then finally crafting a response attuned meticulously to imagined contingencies that you will send at the most opportune moment.
The text message’s built-in ambiguity — its optional absence — generates its own opportunities and anxieties. It opens up whole avenues for expression that alternately try to take advantage of or try to soften the threat of absence. Response time becomes its own form of communication. The possibility of ghosting haunts every exchange, since escaping a conversation requires precisely nothing. Ghosting becomes something more than just a move ending a conversation; it informs the quality of every conversation. Like a phone call, a text message arrives almost as if from the spirit world, and the sender can always ghost back into it.
Read receipts and “your contact is typing” notifications alleviate some of these anxieties, augmenting telepresence. But their quality is meager. There are no notifications telling you “your contact is staring off into the distance and biting his lip pensively” or “your contact is scratching himself and stealing glances at the TV.”
The threat of absence in the text gives new meaning to old language and also occasions new language. With a voice and body language missing the text itself takes on new significance, more than it can really bear. Misspellings and typos — along with correct spelling and grammar — begin to convey their own kind of tone. An almost manic tendency toward abbreviation emerges, both to provide rest for weary thumbs and to try to break through the screens to achieve something of the immediacy of real-life communication.
Punctuation, particularly the exclamation point, becomes fraught. There is an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine chastises a boyfriend for underusing exclamation points in the notes he writes her. The episode’s writers recognized early on how important the exclamation point — and the absence of exclamation points — would become in a world where people struggled to really mean what they say.
It is difficult to get behind what you say when you are not there. The exclamation point still serves its customary function in texts — to indicate that the preceding text was exclamatory — but it also takes on a new function: that of simply assuring the recipient that that the sender meant it. The exclamation point becomes a kind of replacement for human presence, an assurance that there is someone behind the words. It is the first emoji.
But both exclamation point and emoji are poor replacements for real presence, and both tend to become subject to the same ironies and suspicions. Can you ever really mean an emoji? It is always at least half a joke. Deprived of our ability to actually express emotion, we externalize it and kid about it.
The sender, in sum, can never really get behind what he says, and the recipient can never really believe him. Every text message is, in a way, a lie.
This doesn’t really matter when all you want to do is tell your spouse what time your train is arriving. It is also fine for trolls and ironists and anyone prepared to revel in a mélange of free-floating signifiers that toy playfully with their meanings without ever really meaning them. But it can be a problem for those hoping through text messages to express their feelings, build relationships, convey nuanced information or opinion.
As speech detached from its speaker, we might call the text message externalized communication. Where the phone call merely severed our bodies from conversation, the text message finishes the job, silencing our voices too.
In texts, we no longer express ourselves, but hypothetical, externalized versions of ourselves. We speak to each other as though through avatars in a video game. Communication, under these conditions, tends to default into either irony or instrumentality — distanced modes of communication where intention and expression are divorced from one another. Trolling provides the clearest and most alarming evidence of this divorce, but it’s present in ordinary exchanges too.
On the part of the recipient, the tenuous connection between speaker and speech makes it always seem possible that the speaker is kidding, dissembling, or scheming. Even when nothing of the kind is happening, the security of mutual understanding — the footing we find in real life and even on the phone — is lacking. Suspicion reigns.
And suspicion is often warranted. The detachment does give the sender of the text message new power over the means of expression and protection from the usual vulnerabilities.
But this power comes at great cost. The text message robs us of the tone, cadence, facial expression, body language, volume, and timing that often give our expressions the body they need to really communicate. These aspects of speech are also often unintended; they betray meaning beyond what we may want to say and beyond the narrow, literal meaning of our words.
Freed from these unintended aspects of speech, the text message offers us the chance to forever be as cool, calm, and detached as we are in our fantasies. This technological advantage is particularly welcome in a society where relations with others are frequently plagued by isolation, suspicion, and over-competitiveness — even if messaging tends to exacerbate all these problems.
Both ordinary conversation and messaging involve a blend of vulnerability and power, but these poles become reversed in the text message. In real life, I am not in control of my image. I do my best to show myself to advantage, but — painful as it is — how I look and sound is mostly up to others and they, little as they may deserve to, largely determine the social meaning of my words and actions.
This involves a great deal of failure since we are rarely able to make the exact impression we hope for. Even when we do, we can never be sure we have. We sweat and stammer and prevaricate, and wonder if it’s noticeable. We fall easily into tormented speculation about what the other person sees or doesn’t see, thinks or doesn’t think.
But, in real life, there are consolations. Just as we are objects for others they are objects for us. I determine to some extent the meaning of others’ actions and utterances. They perform for me as I perform for them. A conversation is, in this sense, a negotiation. Even when it’s not combative, it involves a continuous tug of war between perspectives. The meaning that unfolds is rarely exactly what either party has in mind at the outset. Even when a speaker lectures to a silent audience, its mood and attention makes an important contribution to what he says.
In conversation, what was in my head comes out imperfectly and is alternately buffeted, battered, perhaps broken by what the other draws from his head. This can all be quite acrimonious and messy, but it is also a condition of the kind of cooperation characteristic of the best conversations, which can produce a kind of ecstasy where each party is pulled out of themselves in the articulation of something far beyond either one of them.
Of course there can be imbalances here where these vulnerabilities cease to be reciprocal and there is no tug back and forth. In relationships of domination — as Hegel’s famous analysis of the relationship between master and slave shows — one party is all-vulnerable and the other all-secure. But even here the master knows, at some level, that the “yes, master” recognition he gets from the slave is coerced and illegitimate. Automatic validation from another is just a contrived way to pat yourself on the back. The master finds himself locked into an egotistical prison, where all his needs and desires are met but none of it provides any genuine satisfaction.
The text message turns us all into a version of Hegel’s master. Of course, we lack his power of coercion — our text messages don’t always produce the returns we’re hoping for — but we have a similar security. The text’s automatic irony and instrumentality protect us from bearing the full brunt of rejection or unpleasantness. Anything negative happens only to a simulated, hypothetical version of ourselves — our Indiana Jones. Though we seem to converse with others, it might be more accurate to say we converse with ourselves through others. Every text message is sent, above all, to oneself.
A real-life conversation or phone call, to put it another way, is intersubjective — its meaning is, in some sense, in between the participants. A text message conversation has two meanings, one for each participant. We can hope they coincide, but we can never be sure.
The flipside of the invulnerability of messaging is that we lose much of our power over the other. They become ciphers. Recognition, if it comes, is like that of the slave’s to the master. It never feels genuinely earned and it feels like it could be stripped away at any moment. The vulnerability carefully removed by messaging is a condition of genuine recognition.
This is especially true of social media posts, which are a kind of mass text with which we try to crowd-source recognition. On Facebook and Twitter, we post about our triumphs and tribulations, virtually guaranteed to garner the response we’re after. But this never provides genuine security. It’s no surprise that these posts frequently exhibit neediness, delusion, and even paranoia — and that the people who use social media the most suffer disproportionately from depression and other mood disorders. Social media’s forced narcissism is partly due to a form of communication that never really reaches beyond the self.
In Hegel’s master-slave dialectic it is, surprisingly, the slave that makes greater strides toward self-actualization. “Through work,” Hegel writes, “the slave becomes conscious of what he really is.” He confronts and overcomes the challenges of physical reality and, in shaping it, comes to see his inner self genuinely expressed in the real world. The friction he finds in work contrasts with the master’s frictionless world.
On our new frictionless messaging platforms, we are at once present and absent, always at a distance from our words. We easily become players in a game, consumer-masters of our own stories and relationships, able to pick them up and put them down at a whim. From this distance, it becomes much easier to present ourselves, but, without the friction and the labor of embodied expression, much more difficult to become conscious of what we really are.