Textual Liberation?

Painting: Untitled (Annika With PC), 1998, by Miltos Manetas/Courtesy of Yvon Lambert Gallery, NYC

The other week I received a chiding e-mail of congratulations from a new friend who had noticed my wedding announcement in the Times online, and felt out of the loop. “The thought process was, ‘Oh wow, Liesl got married! This must be an incredibly recent development,’ ” she teased.

Well, no, not all that incredibly recent, actually. The wedding happened in 1992, and the marriage ended in 1994—before I had ever sent an e-mail, and before the Times had a Web presence to speak of. A few years ago, the Times began posting its archived wedding announcements, and since then, this ghost wedding has haunted Google, provoking sporadic e-mails from other bewildered friends, not to mention a spooked suitor or two. But I am not leading a double life. My marriage was ephemeral; yet on the Internet, it is indestructible. I sent an e-mail to the Times half a year ago, begging for the announcement to be dropped from the online archive: no dice.

I e-mailed my friend, explaining the reason for her confusion, and signed off “L,” but what ended up onscreen was “LLL.” I have grown so used to signing off “L” in cell-phone text messages, by hitting the 5 key three times, that I’d carried over the habit to my keyboard. So I erased the surplus Ls and sent. As I did, I thought about the sweeping changes in communication that have occurred in a little over a decade, which have changed my life and the life of my very specific hinge generation—those of us born in time for Sesame Street (it bowed in 1969) but before the arrival of HBO—more perhaps than we have yet had time to understand. Incredible as this may sound to people not much younger than us, we came of age using paper correspondence, landline phone calls, and real-life encounters to woo our first boyfriends and girlfriends and to land our first jobs.

It’s not like we’d want to go back: We’re as addicted as anyone else to the convenience of text messages, e-mail, cell phones, and PDAs. But beneath our adopted PC-and-text exteriors often lurks a vestigial typewriter-and-cursive mentality. If I were younger, like the friend I e-mailed about my starter marriage, I’d have a MySpace page that could make it clear to anyone whether I was single, married, divorced, or into leather. But for someone my age, to create a MySpace page (without an album to flog) would be an unsavory pose, like going to a college café and pretending to be a student.

I know: As OK Go told us on YouTube, “Get Over It.” But lately I wonder if my peers and I might have more in common with my unhurried midwestern grandmother, who’d phone us, ask “What do you know?” and settle in for a long listen, than we do with a hoodied hipster in Pumas who texts from an art opening. It’s something to do with a lost facility for what we might today call “uni-tasking”—focusing on one person, one thing, at a time. We are the last generation that remembers it. Do we still have the knack? Can we pass it on?

Two new books about the textual revolution show the different characters of the generations that flank mine. Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home was written by two men born near the end of the baby boom, David Shipley, the deputy editorial-page editor and op-ed editor of the New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion. Leisurely, jokey, and crammed with well-digested explanations of how workers should and should not use e-mail, Send is an old-paradigm breakdown of new technology. Meanwhile, The Joy of Text: Mating, Dating, and Techno-Relating, by Kristina Grish, pulses with the fruity, caffeinated glow of the cubicled IM generation. Whereas Grish shows how to maximize the potential fun of digital messaging, Shipley and Schwalbe show how to minimize its potential harms. (For instance: They caution you to remember that anything you e-mail can be maliciously forwarded.) Their book would have been more useful a decade ago—certainly, Enron higher-ups would have benefited. But by now it’s far too late for any of us, corrupt or honest, to unsend all the embarrassing, immoderate, misdirected communiqués our evil twins sent out when the Internet was in its infancy. Still, we’re in good time to start asking other questions about the textual revolution: not how the new technology works (if we don’t know that by now, we’re unemployed, retired, stupid, or quaintly perverse) but how it has changed us.

The first time someone pushed e-mail on me was late in 1993, only a couple of years after Tim Berners-Lee unleashed the World Wide Web at CERN, the Swiss particle-physics laboratory. A woman was boasting to me about her red-hot e-mail exchanges with a lover. “It’s incredible,” she gushed. “It’s so intimate, and you hear back immediately. You must set up an e-mail account.” At the time, I balked. In 1993, setting up an e-mail account sounded as complicated as doing a DIY wiring job. (Besides, nobody I knew had e-mail.) A couple of years later, I had both a work and a home e-mail account, and so, it seemed, did everybody else.

Yet despite e-mail’s rapid spread, there was a strangely lonely bridge moment in the mid-to-late nineties when real-life communication diminished as everyone began to experiment with electronic interaction. Those of us in our twenties, who were building our careers and love lives when the tech whistle blew, felt an odd disconnect as the nation logged on and our phones stopped ringing. It was tempting to stay in over the weekend, waiting for the flying-toaster-dotted computer screen to ping.

When the cell phone and PDA made the scene at the turn of the century, we were set free. All at once, you could leave the house or desk any time without fear of missing the most casual or crucial conversation. You could watch a first-release movie with a friend and not miss a buzz in your pocket from a new boyfriend, texting you to come join him at a late-breaking … art party. And in the process we went from hanging on the landline phone to being almost leery of it.

In Send, Shipley and Schwalbe provide a highlighted box of situations when the telephone is preferable to e-mail, such as when you need to “convey or discern emotion” or when you want to “soften the blow” of bad news. But their recommendations bespeak another truth; bosses increasingly communicate good or neutral news via e-mail. An actual live voice call usually means something’s wrong. Every desk jockey knows the sinking feeling of seeing a telltale extension pop up on the phone screen. It’s the same sense of dread you get when you watch a babysitter in a slasher movie, and think, Don’t answer the phone! But you have to, even if the result is bloody. The stigma of the live call has infected leisure time, too: My friends in their thirties and I don’t call each other as much as we used to, and my friends in their twenties all text or e-mail.

In fact, more and more of us hear our friends’ voices only when we are also looking at their faces. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The abbreviation of text messages strikes home the point that if we spent less time typing each other we might have more time to see each other. As Grish points out, if a friend sends you frequent e-mails but never arranges to see you, he is blowing you off. Shipley and Schwalbe contend, “On email, people aren’t quite themselves: they are angrier, less sympathetic, less aware, more easily wounded, even more gossipy and duplicitous.” But the real case may be that on e-mail, people are too much themselves, typing well-landscaped little cul-de-sacs of “I just wanted to say” that have little to do with whoever’s in the “To” box. Socially speaking, e-mails, unlike text messages, are more often an outlet for self-delight than a tool to speed mutual connection. And the person who wastes an entire day (as so many of us do) reading and rereading an upsetting e-mail from a friend, colleague, or lover, fretting over its buried meanings like a soothsayer poking through the entrails of a chicken, might be better served to just text the sender “WTF?” and arrange a face-to-face.

Lately, grudgingly, I’ve begun to think that my live-phone-shunning older friends and my terse-texting younger friends have a point. For the older set, that point is increasing face time with the people they already know; for the younger set, the point is increasing face time with everyone they have still to meet. Grish concedes that there are “sociopathetic” types who only want to connect with other “living, breathing humans” virtually—“and you don’t want to get involved with any of them.” But for the rest of us, living, breathing interactions are what we’re texting for. I am almost convinced that textual liberation is real liberation, and not the stuff of a mobile-conglomerate ad. Texts may not unclutter our schedules, or give us time for rambling phone calls, but they can at least lure us away from our keyboards, into the sunlight, and into each other’s presence—before it’s too l8.

Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home
By David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. Knopf. 256 Pages. $19.95.

The Joy of Text: Mating, Dating, and Techno-Relating
By Kristina Grish. Simon Spotlight Entertainment. 176 Pages. $12.95.

Textual Liberation?