Text turns 20; what's next?

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Happy birthday, Text Message.

Twenty years ago Monday, the first text/SMS message was sent by an engineer in the United Kingdom. What did it say? "Merry Christmas."

The convenience may be handy, but I am not a fan of this technological wonder. No, it isn't merely a writer's distaste for the further erosion of language. More and more, technology takes us away from intimacy, from full-on, person-to-person interaction. Words have more meaning and are better understood when we can combine them with facial expression and tone of voice. Miscommunications happen more easily without those; the same words may be joke or insult, statement or question, indictment or satire.

Still, you can't stop progress. Text has come a long way.

The engineer was 22-year-old Neil Papworth who worked for Semea Group Telecoms. Working on a mobile messaging project for European cell carrier Vodafone, he sent the test text from his computer to the phone of company director Richard Jarvis, who was at a Christmas party.

Hold the phone (hey, that's outdated now): One might argue that Mr. Text Message is eight years older than that. Papworth may have sent the first, but he didn't come up with the idea. In 1984 Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen was working with Nokia when he suggested the idea at a conference, becoming the self-styled "reluctant father of SMS" - short message service.

Or you might call Text 18, not 20. Two years elapsed after Papworth's first text before Nokia unveiled the first mobile phone with messaging for sale.

Makkonen made no money from his invention; in fact, he told BBC that he didn't think it could be patented. Nor is Makkonen a fan of shortening to "textspeak" for convenience. He prefers fully developed words and carefully crafted messages, "slow enough to think and sometimes even edit what I write."

There's a lesson in that. In the days of handwritten letters and typewriters, we took time to think. The brain moved faster than the hand could comply, so we self-edited as the message developed. Fewer misimpressions or poorly chosen phrases, time to rethink, less chance for relationship fauxs-pas.

President Obama announced his veep pick via text message. Texts provided eyewitness accounts as they unfolded on 9/11. Texts are routinely used as evidence in lawsuits. They may even establish extraterrestrial first contact one day; in 2009 "Hello from Earth" text messages from around the world were sent into space from the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in Australia to Gliese 581d, a planet outside our solar system believed capable of supporting life.

Beyond the wonders, there are costs.

Teens and young adults, even some older adults, rarely use voice when a text is possible, losing opportunities to hear an inflection, a sympathetic sigh, laughter or pain. Well, texting does save precious time.

Or does it? I watched my teen do homework, phone at her side. Stopping every few minutes to read or send a text. My phone is inches away as I write; the little vibrations interrupt my train of thought. I lose better sentences or ideas.

Naturally this affects concentration not only in tasks, but also face-to-face conversation (what little remains). What qualities do we lose in this world of constant interruption? At minimum, patience. Human intimacy. Attention and focus, both which lead to more carefully developed thought and, perhaps, better decision-making.

Perhaps we need some code of ethics to suit our burgeoning technology, lest we lose too much. Other tech industries including medicine and robotics make a point of discussing ethics - just because we can, doesn't always mean we should, or at least not without forethought. Texting, social network messaging and posts, Tweets... They're so public. So discoverable. So permanent - easily stored and intercepted.

Modern communication risks trading efficiency for privacy, speed for care.

"To do two things at once is to do neither." - Pubilius Syrus, 1st century B.C.E.

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email: sholehjo@hotmail.com

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