texting-2Recently I travelled to Louisville to attend the Front Porch Republic conference. The experience was memorable in several ways—not least of all in the outstanding presentations and remarkable fellowship. It also occasioned for me reflection upon a now common means of communication.

I had decided that travelling by plane and being away from home for two days I should borrow my daughter’s cell phone. I don’t own a cell phone myself–though I do pay for my two college age daughters’ phones. I have not promised myself that I will not get one; but I have decided to try to make it as long as I possibly can without one. Maybe I’m a phony; given that I have to borrow one when I travel, can I really say that I am ‘making it’ without one? But be that as it may, I am trying.

So for the two days of the conference I experienced life with a cell-phone. My plane was delayed. So I texted to say that I was late. I texted to arrange meeting others at a restaurant. The next day I received a text from my daughter—the one whose mobile I did not borrow—writing that she hoped I was having a good trip. I texted back how delighted I was to have received her sweet message.

A mere thirty-six hours of the world of texting made apparent its advantages, and how one can become completely accustomed to its use. I suppose this experience is a bit belated for me.

I am well aware that texting, perhaps especially though certainly not exclusively among the younger generations, has become standard procedure. Indeed, I was seeing texts from my daughter’s friends—at least those that she had not told that her father (and their professor) was in temporary possession of her phone. What became clear to me—and this from the testimony of many others too—is that the most ordinary and routine communications now often take place by text message, whether it is arranging for an informal gathering or study-group, or just checking in to say hi or see how someone’s feeling.

There are many reasons why texting is very convenient. Sitting on the plane that was delayed, it was great to be able to text that I was late. In addition to not wanting to talk to the other person about it, I would almost surely have ended up taking much longer to convey the same information by a phone call. And of course we are always—ironically and perhaps significantly despite our wholesale submission to the usage of recent technologies—short on time.

Wendell Berry gave the keynote presentation of the conference I attended. He passed along to us one of the basic rules of thumb that he tries to use in life. He said that he learned it from his father.

“Always consider the net gain. Not just the gross gain.”

I think the practice of texting is a net loss. Yes it can be very convenient. But it seems to me that the cost is too high—and this apart from the obvious evil uses for which this media can be used. Here are three reasons for this judgment:

1. You shouldn’t always be on call.
Texting presupposes that people are ‘on-call’ all the time; otherwise, it simply wouldn’t work. You can’t text-arrange a party for tonight, much less for an hour from now, unless everybody is at the beck and call of your electronic message. Sure, the system allows for the fact that someone might be using the rest room, praying, or taking a short nap. But as a rule the hiatus in which one is ‘away’ from the machine is assumed to be short. Only a hiatus: which implies and cultivates, even if subconsciously, the attitude that one is really only ‘connected’ and ‘with-it’ when one is with one’s mobile device.

We have all seen the scene of people coming out of the device-free zones, anxiously re-connecting to find out what they have missed. Surely there is some update, some message, some something. Yet now the drive is toward fewer device-free zones. I tell my students that when they’ve entered the classroom they’ve entered one of the few remaining areas of liberty—from the demands of their devices.

It is hard to grasp just what is at stake here. But I am convinced that being-on-call in this hyper-sensitized mode is detrimental to our really being present in a place, and to the persons around us. To be truly present where one’s body is, is to be available and accountable; it is also the first step of being-together. With anyone.

2. It’s rude to those around you.
It happened several times over this past weekend. I did it myself. It’s the turning of the back and the attention away from those right there with you. And then entering very intently into the simultaneous composition and ‘typing.’

We need to face this. Texting is changing the rules, or in any case the practice, of long-established and well-founded traditions of manners. People you would never expect tune-out and tune-in with almost shocking unconcern for those around them. It’s becoming expected, and normal.

But it’s not good. It brings out and nourishes in us that element that does not want to have to care about others. Etiquette and manners make a demand upon us; they literally incarnate other-centeredness. How easily we slip into “sorry, I’ve got to take care of this right now.” The incoming message masquerades as the need of someone else. But it is not. It’s mine. And to put the messages of remote who-knows-who’s before the demands of the present relationship is really a form of putting my needs first. So it corrodes the very dispositions that underlie manners. And human relationships, and community life.

3. It cheapens communication.
Of course; one might object that email has already done this. People already have lost the art of writing letters, and all the self-examination and well-crafted expression that goes along with it. But I don’t see how this is an argument that we should take it to the next level of degradation. Friendship and other rich relationships depend upon habits of appropriate soul-sharing through the body. Real communication needs to be the object of intention and cultivation.

Some readers may remember sitting with a pen in hand, thinking about what to write next in a letter to friend, penpal, or relative. It was an effort that yielded insight into our very selves: our experiences, feelings, and desires. It was an effort directed both at seeing something and at discerning how to express it, and somehow these two were one.

Of course one can text, and still write real letters—either text letters, or separate letters by email or even hand. But the fact is that this almost never happens. Texting is a new low, and another replacement, another pushing aside of deeper ways of communicating.

I resolve to just say no. But at the end of the day, perhaps I will not have the freedom to say no. Will living in community with others require the use of technologies that threaten and degrade communication and presence? I can understand how many who share these same concerns have nonetheless decided to use these technologies. There is no easy answer. But I am convinced that any reasonable answer must be grounded in an understanding of the inherent dangers of these technologies, and a vigilant discipline to minimize them.

John Cuddeback’s blog is Bacon from Acorns.

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John A. Cuddeback is a professor and chairman of the Philosophy Department at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, where he has taught since 1995. He received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America under the direction of F. Russell Hittinger. He has lectured on various topics including virtue, culture, natural law, friendship, and household. His book Friendship: The Art of Happiness was republished in 2010 as True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. His writings have appeared in Nova et Vetera, The Thomist, and The Review of Metaphysics, as well as in several volumes published by the American Maritain Association. Though raised in what he calls an ‘archetypical suburb,’ Columbia, Maryland, he and his wife Sofia consider themselves blessed to be raising their six children in the shadow of the Blue Ridge on the banks of the Shenandoah. At the material center of their homesteading projects are heritage breed pigs, which like the pigs of Eumaeus are fattened on acorns, yielding a bacon that too few people ever enjoy. His website dedicated to the philosophy of family and household is baconfromacorns.com.

22 COMMENTS

  1. “I resolve to just say no. But at the end of the day, perhaps I will not have the freedom to say no. Will living in community with others require the use of technologies that threaten and degrade communication and presence? ”

    This short excerpt sums up my own feelings about “progress” in any area of technology: the tyranny of expectation that I MUST participate! Never mind that I’m happy with my life as it is, I now have to adopt your toys in order to participate in your ever-accelerating rat race! In fact the requirement and expectation is, for all practical purposes, on a par with a law of physics or even God’s moral law!

    If for no other reason than sheer cussedness, I’m going to do my level best to hold the line where I can!

  2. David, I sure appreciate these sentiments. If a few friends join together in their practices, it will at least be somewhat more practicable. I wish you well in your efforts. Thanks for the comment.

  3. “But it’s not the thing itself, it’s the people who use it poorly.” How many times have we heard that comment? As if it is relevant whether it is possible to use the tool/method (e.g. texting) for good? Bilbo used the ring for good. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that, regardless of his intentions, the use of the ring began to form bad habits in him. And this is the problem with texting. It habituates us to be connected to everything except the person in front of us. As you said, Dr. Cuddeback, “a net loss.” Who cares whether it’s convenient? The real question is “does it contribute to happiness?”

  4. Dr. Cuddeback,

    This is my favorite article of yours yet! Great insight on the changes in our society – really hit areas I’ve been thinking about and questioning as far as etiquette is concerned. Will share, save and reread this!

    -Megan Fraser

  5. For some obscure and ludicrous reason, this came to mind… “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

  6. “Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed.”

    So wrote Thoreau some years back. And I believe it was Eric Zencey, not so long ago, who said our condition now is one of being constantly addressed, which Dante, had he lived long enough, might have made into a torment for infernal souls.

    Anyone who thinks that the mobile phone is not in part responsible for the erosion of manners hasn’t been alive long enough to have witnessed good ones.

    I had the joyous opportunity to converse with Professor Cuddeback this past weekend. It beat hell out of “texting” him, which I wouldn’t know how to do and, please God, hope never to learn.

    At any rate, “text” is best left a noun. It is true that Dylan Thomas, in Under Milkwood, gave us a woman who “high-heels” down the street, but that was another matter, and he was Dylan Thomas.

  7. As a positive commendation to compliment Dr. Cuddeback’s condemnation of texting, I propose the obvious and yet oft slighted practices of handwritten letters, quality time in person on walks when the weather allows, and around fires when it does not, and the common singing of songs, recitation of poetry, and the reading of books, especially Holy Scripture, aloud. I find myself more and more enthralled with John Senior’s vision of life, away from electricity and plastic, and with flesh, blood, stone and wood.

    I’d also like to suggest the excellence of video chatting, in the case of the separation of persons for large periods of time across long distances. Seeing the digital projection of your loved one’s face is no replacement, but it provides a wonderful supplement to being only able to hear her voice.

  8. Jason,
    Point very well taken. Maybe I should have been more attentive when Microsoft Word red-lined ‘texting’ (as is whatever power that oversees the realm of typing-in comments). But of course Word has been known to red-line some fine English words. Be that as it may, I stand corrected. Is the only alternative ‘send a text?’ Thank you Jason for your comment. What a quotation from Thoreau!
    Joseph and Megan, thank you for your thoughts.
    David, perhaps the reason that quotation came to your mind is not so ludicrous and is worth thinking about.
    Josemaria, thanks for your suggestions. John Senior raises some very helpful and provocative points indeed.

  9. I did indeed get past the pun and read the whole article. (In a moment of irony, my reading was interrupted by a little ding. I paused to check the latest text message: a photo of my sister with her teammate, either the daughter who did lend you her phone or the one who didn’t, on their way to their soccer game.)
    Of course you are right, “texting” as a method of communication is convenient and easy; it is also (very often) rude, distracting to oneself and others; and another nail in the coffin of letter-writing.
    Personally, I tend to leave my phone for several hours at a time when I am with my family at home. I don’t feel obligated to reply to texts immediately, though I do realize that is often the expectation. Still, it’s discomforting to realize how accustomed I have become to this instant communication.
    My husband and I have only had smartphones for 10 months, and thought we were quite the hold-outs, but I would expect no less than for you to have us beat. 😉

  10. My husband had insisted that I use a cell phone for safety purposes. I was attending auditions in various unsavory parts about town and when he couldn’t ride shot gun for me he wanted me to have the protection of a cell phone. Now my children complain that I do not leave the phone on 24/7. I reply that you know the home phone # and are free to call me any time. They have replied that I am not always home but if I left the cell phone on they could reach me. I complied finally with their requests. I have left the phone on 24/7 and they have not ever (with one or two exceptions) called me. I think the phone is going out the window. Texting I do not intend to ever, ever try.

  11. Ms. Lee:

    I agree with your husband, and believe the cell phone can be a great emergency/safety asset. It sounds like your family at least has disciplined themselves pretty well in order to confine the use of the thing to the genuinely necessary. As we all know, of course, it’s when the definitions of “necessary” and “emergency” become so abusively expanded and diluted that our problems arise.

    In all too many instances, it’s gotten so bad now, that I would gladly assume the risk of not having one just to prevent my having to deal in all the nonsense and interruption to privacy and . . . real life.

    Goodness, what did we ever do before we had cell/IPhones/etc.?

  12. Maria, It seems important that you not feel obligated to respond to texts right away. It’s hard for me to discern what the point is of texts then, as opposed to emailing; couldn’t we leave texts aside altogether and just use email? But of course, these are judgment calls, and different situations call for different approaches. I remain convinced that the key will be discipline, discipline, discipline.
    Mary, I too have given my wife a cell-phone for safety purposes. And likewise we have had the issue of trying to keep the uses of the phone from expanding. I very much appreciated David’s point that we can stretch the notion of ‘necessary’ and ’emergency.’ Somehow I keep coming back in my mind to Wendell Berry’s point: consider the net…

  13. I began texting at the insistence of the woman I started dating about two years ago. She did not enjoy talking on the phone, and also, being a single mom with a special needs child, she was often quite busy, and communicated “catch as catch can.”

    I never really liked it, but gave in out of understanding. It turned out quite ironical, in that a misunderstood text message (you cannot communicate tone, innuendo, etc.) ended up being a precipitating factor in the relationship’s demise! That was back in May. I disabled texting on my phone at that time and have not gone back. Nor will I.

    Friends and family find this inconvenient. Too damn bad. Berry is right: it really is ‘net’ vs. ‘gross.’

  14. Although I have a smart phone that I use all the time (and even have to be asked to put it down sometimes by my wife or others), I have nonetheless laid out a few rules for myself regarding texts, emails, Facebook, etc.

    First, I rarely abbreviate. I understand that people do so out of convenience (and it started when the price of sending texts was at a premium). Typing out the message I am sending helps me to pay close attention to what I am saying–even though it be a brief message.

    I also re-read what I wrote, re-craft it as necessary, and press the send/post button with deliberation and perhaps at times a bit of trepidation. I like to know what I am saying and mean it, and I cannot do either without being deliberately thoughtful. In fact, I have written many messages and posts that have never gotten further than the box they were typed in (although I’ve heard that Facebook and others capture that un-posted post to use for their own demographics studies anyway).

    Finally, I am trying to not be a slave to the technology. My job requires a lot of immediate communication, but I try to be polite to those I’m with, and yet be responsive to those who reply upon my responses. I’m a Reference Librarian, and I always tell people they can send me texts or emails at anytime, even in the evenings or on weekends. It is a tough balancing act, but I think it is worth it. And I’m also a juggler, so I feel I am up to the challenge!

  15. Rob G, I certainly understand your situation!

    Stephen, Thank you very much for this thought-full reflection. You are surely one of those who is trying to make the most of the text-medium, while striving to minimize its negative tendencies. My fear is that as the use of the text-medium becomes more pervasive–it is of course already very pervasive among college students–it will continue to have its dumbing-down effect on the general tenor of communication, even while some strive against that tendency. Nevertheless, each of us must do what he or she reasonably can in the face of this challenge.

  16. John,

    So far at least all these marvels of modern telecommunications are controlled by us and presuming free will is still alive and well amongst some of us, I challenge your 3 reasons for denouncing the cell phone facility which sadly turns yet another noun into a verb/
    1. If you don’t turn on your phone or let a signal you have incoming text messages (using the word as an adjective seems more permissible) you are not “always on call”. Others may choose to call you, but you decide when, whether, and the extent to which you’re”on call”.
    2.While I agree it is rude to others to use this medium when engaged with others to whom you owe at least the courtesy of attention, (I have chided my adult children many times about this, especially when we are gathered at the dinner table or in the midst of a conversation), here again WE have a choice. One feature of this medium that I very much appreciate, particularly as an alternative to phoning them when they otherwise engaged is that they like we, can choose the time and place to read and respond.
    3.There are many levels of communications. I still love the handwritten letter and occasionally still practice it. E-mail, although I use it extensively, still allows for rich verbal communication but somehow as a less physical medium, seems desiccated. I mean those of us who occasionally love a good cigar, would never have an e-smoke. Besides, using those silly, tiny keyboards makes it difficult for most adults to type well enough to communicate anything of substance. And I am still and shall remain until my dying day an “emoticon” virgin. Hence I keep my texts to the most perfunctory of communications. (Just the facts, ma’am.) I very useful tool.

    Overall evaluation from this former CPA: Net Gain for sure!

    Analogous to the theory of subsidiarity, everything needs to be dealt with (and used) at its appropriate level. We all know that most people and even we sometimes are going to use things badly. But come on, people. Don’t shoot the message technology. Use it judiciously and it will serve you and others well. I thought this is one crowd that still believes in free will and self discipline.

  17. “Use it judiciously and it will serve you and others well. I thought this is one crowd that still believes in free will and self discipline.”

    The appeal to free will becomes problematic when the design of the technology invites, and even intends, addiction or at least dependence. Technologies of this sort carry with them a certain tendency towards compulsion.

    ~~you are not “always on call”. Others may choose to call you, but you decide when, whether, and the extent to which you’re”on call”.~~

    Then why text? Why not just use voice messages? Texting was designed to be a sort of portable instant messaging system, and that is the way the vast majority of people use it, with the emphasis on the “instant.”

    “One feature of this medium that I very much appreciate, particularly as an alternative to phoning them when they otherwise engaged is that they like we, can choose the time and place to read and respond.”

    But how is that any different from leaving a voice message? If they’re “otherwise engaged” they won’t answer the phone. If a person answers a cell call in the middle of an actual conversation with a person who’s present, he/she is rude and inconsiderate. The end. Texting doesn’t alter this in any way.

    “There are many levels of communications”

    True, but I don’t think we should be encouraging the use of the lower ones at the expense of the higher, which is what is happening.

    My approach is to treat my cell phone as simply a portable version of an old land-line phone, and to follow the same rules of use and courtesy with it when I’m out that I would use on my land-line phone when I was home. I don’t let it interrupt meals, movies, etc., I don’t call anyone back who doesn’t leave a message, I avoid as much as possible carrying on phone conversations when others are present, etc.

  18. Rob G wrote: “My approach is to treat my cell phone as simply a portable version of an old land-line phone, and to follow the same rules of use and courtesy with it when I’m out that I would use on my land-line phone when I was home. I don’t let it interrupt meals, movies, etc., I don’t call anyone back who doesn’t leave a message, I avoid as much as possible carrying on phone conversations when others are present, etc.”

    I like your approach, and wish more folks would use them this way. Unfortunately, what drives corporate and business interests in America is all about getting there first with the most and knowing more than the competition; consequently, we are all “encouraged” to some degree to be available 24/7.

    Heck, as an Army Chaplain, I was required to carry a unit-issued cell phone, and had to have it on all the time, regardless where I was or who I was with. Now, again, I get being responsive to genuine emergencies, as I posted earlier, and I did receive my share of calls that required me to go minister to soldiers and/or their families, sometimes at 0300 in the morning! That’s fine. But, what you have in organizations like the Army is an institution that doesn’t simply deal with national defense, but has become a welfare state, and must be responsive to the whims of politicians and a good deal of the public that believes the armed services are there for their business interests, whims, etc. At that point, “emergency” expands to mean anything the CO considers vital to his getting a good write-up on his next Officer Evaluation Report (OER), regardless whether it’s genuinely an emergency or not.

    For a long time after leaving the Army, I would feel “phantom” vibrations at my hip or on my upper arm, locations that corresponded to pockets on my ACUs where I was accustomed to keep my phone. Thank God that’s receding into the past and I can turn the thing off or leave it behind altogether!

  19. Bernardo,
    I appreciate your thoughts. But I think that your main appeal–that to free will–misses the point. Holding the nobility and moral importance of free will does not absolve us from the responsibility to use our prudence to seek contexts that are conducive to the good life. It is certainly true to say that using text messages does not remove our free will. But removing free will, I suggest, is not the right criterion to apply here. The point is to examine the net effect of the use of a technology, and this includes considering how it tends to affect our practices. I have already granted that some can and do use this technology in a reasonable way; perhaps it is a net gain for some. I would still argue that is a net loss for both the majority of people, and for society as a whole. I do not intend this to be a moral condemnation of using text messages. But it does seem to me to affect important aspects of human life. I certainly am a hardy proponent of discipline; I have suggested that self-discipline may well be best exercised by avoiding this medium all together. I thank you again for your thoughts.
    I think that Rob G makes some fine points here, and I appreciate David Smith’s sharing his army experience.

  20. ‘consequently, we are all “encouraged” to some degree to be available 24/7.’

    Yes, and there is also the resultant anxiety, esp. among younger people, that if they’re not available 24/7 they’re going to miss something. Which is very odd, come to think of it. It’s like leaving your TV on all day in case there’s a news bulletin.

    Leaving the “device” at home or in the car becomes an almost traumatic experience. The dependence is palpable, and addiction may be not too strong a word for it.

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