***editor’s note – The following post is an exchange between fellow beloved Theocult writer Jay McCumber and myself discussing the faults and merits of digital communication. It certainly has it’s utility in this world, but are we allowing it to obscure what really matters most?***
Charlie: Jay, my dear friend, we currently live in an age where the paper and pen have become archaic and unappreciated. Nowadays, the role and influence of insta-method digital communication, such as e-mail and texting, have created new forms of subtext and interpretation. It’s changed the way you and I interact with our world, and the consequences of this movement have been vast and varied.
Jay: chck! lol, srsly sgthfy <|:0>
I know exactly what you mean. The rate of change and shift in means of communication and strategies due to technological reform and advance has had major effect. I see this not only in conversation (exchange of words between two beings, virtual or otherwise), but in language itself and the power of words to carry or not carry meaning. In a nutshell, it seems to me that personal interpretation is on the rise and relational communication is on the decline.
Allow me to explain…
You send me a text: Bro, u want to join me for the Public Enemy reunion tour next Friday. Tix are on me
I text back: Sick! u da man. #flavorflav4ever
Then you text: Cool. djay is coming too. meet at my place at 7
I don’t text back.
These words now carry not just meaning, but interpretive power and that interpretation is fully open at this point because there is no non-verbal or tonal context for them. So many things could be happening between us at this point.
1. I could be cool with everything and you could be cool with everything.
2. You could be worried that I didn’t text back thinking that something was wrong in what you said.
3. Maybe I just had to step into a meeting and couldn’t text back.
4. I could be really annoyed at DJay and thus really annoyed at you that I committed to something that now makes me be around DJay when in actuality at this point in time I hate his guts.
5. You could think that I’m not ok with DJay coming and thus not ok with DJay, when in reality, I just had to step into a meeting and couldn’t text back but everything is totally fine between me and DJay, but now you’re worried about our relationship.
6. I could be living in relational conflict with DJay, and then be mad at you thinking that you talked with DJay, he told you about our issues and then you used this “free ticket” opportunity to manipulate us into being around each other hoping we’ll make up or something.
See what I mean? Vacuous interpretation over human communication. And all of this can happen in a matter of seconds.
Charlie: I feel you, bro. I can totally relate to the pitfalls of text messaging, especially in the scenario #2 that you listed. There have been WAY too many times I’ve believed there to be something wrong because I received no (prompt) reply, and that is so stupid. Because text messaging is quick and easy, it sometimes seems ridiculous that someone can’t get back to you within a reasonable amount of time. And when you don’t hear from them, you think the worst of it, and it’s all so idiotic and would never happen if you could just discuss it in person.
Looking back, there were unforeseen consequences that bloomed from using technological advancements to produce new modes of communication. E-mail was developed to be an electronic letter without postage that became revolutionary and simple. In fact, it has become so convenient and easy to use that it’s now turned into a lesser alternative of text messaging. Plus, when you misuse/confuse the functions of Cc and Bcc or hit “Reply All” instead of “Reply” (and vice-versa), you bring about a great squall of trouble that makes you question every decision you’ve ever made with even the slightest minutiae of certainty.
Text messaging exists primarily as mobile, quick-hit dialogue used for situations where voice calling is either inappropriate or inconvenient, but now it replaces phone calls for many. There are actually people out there who prefer SMS to talking on the phone. People would rather discuss, arrange, and express themselves through text than voice. It’s a preference that ends up subverting the entire aim of technology in bringing us closer together.
The primary flaw experienced in using e-mails and SMS is when their utility is surmounted by the attempt to become an agent for full human interaction and discussion. It’s simply impossible to perfectly duplicate a face-to-face conversation (which itself can be hard enough sometimes) without ambiguity arising, leading to misunderstanding. We’ve yet to properly substitute inflection or cadence into digital text, which can be huge to adding meaning in vocal conversation. But their use in our world is so rooted at this point that’s nearly impossible to remove them from our lives without affecting others. So how do we augment the flaws of digitized communication? Does that needed change come from within ourselves?
Jay: I think you’re expounding well upon the second major issue in text messaging, which I’d name as communicative hiding. Here’s an example:
My wife went to visit a young lady in our church whose baby was in the hospital. Sheri and this girl are in the early stages of friendship, and coupled with Sheri’s role as a pastor, was a sweet opportunity for ministry and care toward someone in a situation with which we’re familiar. The hospital stay was turning out to be longer than expected, and the stress levels were increasing for this single mom. Sheri spent over an hour with her, asking all kind of questions and pursuing face to face conversation and care. This woman had every opportunity to engage Sheri on deep levels, and that is how Sheri was trying to steer the conversation. Instead, this mom simply wanted to talk about more surface stuff. No problem; no big deal at all. Sometimes we just don’t feel like going deep; I’ve been there. Sheri was fine with it too. Not every conversation has to be massively deep in order to be meaningful. Hopefully at some point, a door would open for deeper care.
Late that night though, this girl texted Sheri: “I feel so alone.”
Seriously? A text message? What was she to do with that? That’s a profound confession that needs to be handled with a deep amount of grace and care.
Sheri called her, but she didn’t pick up. So Sheri texted back: “So sorry you’re feeling this. I’m praying for you.” Then her friend immediately texted back this massive message filled with deep emotion, concern, spiritual weight and need for help.
A text message. A phone call was offered, but she’d rather “talk” about these deep matters of the heart over text message.
The average teenager sends 60 texts per day. 63% of teenagers prefer text messaging to phone calls. This is a very dangerous thing I think, because the basis of all communication is humanity not technology.
For me, John 1.14 forms the ultimate foundation for all communication, verbal, non-verbal, spiritual, emotional, etc. “And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us…” God’s communication to us was Word, language, meaning through expression, and His language — His Son the Word — formed a home with and then for all of humanity.
Sociologists say that something like 80% of our communication is nonverbal. I’d say that in God’s economy, 100% of communication is spiritual. You can sit with someone, stare them in the face, use language to express something, and their spirit will know whether or not what you are saying is real because at the core, language expresses and defines meaning and ultimate language — ultimate meaning — is found ultimately in and through Jesus. Text messaging is a spiritual issue because communication and meaning are spiritual dynamics.
When we try to have real communication via text message, we kill meaning. And per my earlier concert text message example, we don’t just kill meaning, but we destroy communication, elevate personal interpretation outside of relational parameters, and open the door for deception, anxiety, worry, mistrust and fear.
Hang on, I gotta reply to this text I just received.
Charlie: Jay, you never got back to your point and it has me deeply concerned that something bad has hap……………..oh…..wait………you were trying to be funny………..well, I feel so silly…..LULZ!!!11!!
I think you nailed it when you said “basis of all communication is humanity not technology.” There wasn’t a human being Jesus interacted or spoke with that wasn’t being pursued fully by His overflowing heart. If we choose to interact with others out of ease, fear, and/or convenience for ourselves, we’re simply allowing a digital veil to be dropped between us and our network. Pigments of truth collapse as recipients are forced to apply ambiguous interpretation. Intimacy attempts to operate between screens. Flaws in communication skills are blanketed. All of this because we don’t value an unadulterated exchange of emotive colloquy with our peers as much as we ought.
I’ve never considered text messaging to have spiritual affliction because of loss of meaning. It’s an interesting point I’m still chewing on. Romans 10: 14-21 sticks out to me (regarding how all of our communication is spiritual) as a passage citing how God uses His Spirit to move and communicate Himself through the preaching of The Gospel. God’s Spirit is the antithesis of communicative confusion. It simply cannot exist within the construct of God’s character that you and I have staked our lives on as irrepressible truth.
I think there’s a great use to be had for texting, but like anything else on this earth, it has the ability to cross the line and become harmful. I find myself using it more than I’d like to, which is tough because it shows I’m willing to give in to cultural tendencies I don’t necessarily agree with. Resistance requires taking a stance and great effort. But maybe it’s not so much about the quantity of texting I do, but the quality and what conversations I deem appropriate to be had through said mode, and knowing when to continue or initiate it through vocal communication.
Jay: The main problem with texting — and many other forms of electronic communication — is that it can easily cheapen the humanity, dignity and importance of the personhood of that individual. Texting should only happen as it can be considered to be received by a human with feelings, story, experience. If you cannot fully have your own personhood contained in a text message, and fully expect the person on the other end of the text message to be fully human in receiving that text, then you should not send it.
This is why humor can go wrong so fast in text messaging. Humor is usually funny because it walks a thin line. The meaning in face to face humor, or voice to voice humor is much more easily accessible because the person is there. In a text, there is a vacuous space for interpretation leading to many wrongs that should not have had to go wrong.
Above all else, we are made for connection with God and one another. These connections happen through communication, verbal and non-verbal. All forms of communication — electronic or otherwise — should be incarnational, with our humanity at the front, embodying the Word that is Christ, and communicating meaning from that vantage point. Anything less is not love.
Charlie: One last input on texting: I feel like it’s here to stay simply because we are a culture that idolizes hyper-compact schedules that lead to innovations intended to aid us in juggling all our responsibilities and interests so that we don’t feel like we’re missing out on or neglecting anything. What gradually ends up happening is we just get a cheaper version of what we want but cannot have fully. Texting lodges multiple relationships into slots for the sake of connection, but it begs the question of whether connection is really happening.
“I don’t have time to call [name], I’ll just text them.”
Is that a perfect, seamless analog?
There’s no way.
If we just want information, that’s understandable. But an authentic, nurturing relationship that has that holds the individual’s heart with the utmost care?
I know God’s love, care, and adoration for me isn’t conditioned on convenience.
My desire is that all those I care for feel the reflection of the same emotive.