So we had to fall back on telegrams. People linked together by close friendship, affection, or physical love found themselves reduced to hunting for tokens of their past communion within the compass of a ten-word telegram. And since, in practice, the phrases one can use in a telegram are quickly exhausted, long lives passed side by side, or passionate yearnings, soon declined on the exchange of such trite formulas as “Am fit. Always thinking of you. Love.”
- Albert Camus, The Plague)
In Camus’s tale of plague-quarantined Oran, his allegory of France under Nazi occupation, the compass granted by the telegram is viewed as limited and unsatisfactory. Its ten words admitting only the trite, Camus assumes an inevitable diminution of personal relations. How differently we view such matters today. No longer bothered by the trite, we view the similarly limited compass granted by our own personal telegraph machine – the mobile phone and its text messaging facility – as enriching and expanding personal relations.
We take a contrary view to that of Camus because we feel we have the killer advantage: quantity. For what our new telegrams lack in subtlety, we think to ourselves, they more than make up in volume. So if, using our mobile phones, we can communicate more frequently and more easily with a wider group of people then, our assumption goes, our personal relations must be better than ever, and certainly superior to those of the poor, pox-marked inhabitants of Oran.
Yet the assumption of our advantage can be challenged on several grounds. One could argue that the equation of greater quantity with increased satisfaction is likely to be as flawed in the area of personal communication as it’s proving in areas such as consumer goods. One could also argue that the stylisation of the text – whether mobile voice call or text message (both are likely to be more stylised than other exchanges) – has a profound effect on the exchange that is neither neutralised, nor compensated for, by quantity. Indeed, surely quantity only contributes to it.
However, I’m concerned about the idea of quantity itself and whether, in the sphere of personal relations and the mobile phone, quantity is all it seems. In other words, when are talking and “texting” not also communicating?
To answer or not to answer?
In a recent article in The Age(“I’ll call you”, 3 November 2003), Claire Halliday discussed the issue of mobile phones and how they are changing expectations of punctuality. The article suggested that mobile phones are creating a notion of “soft time”, whereby appointments are deferred by the device of phoning ahead at the appointed time.
The article includes the diaries of two people on a typical “mobile day” and it is here that we get a hint about the first problem with quantity: the issue of control.
One person notes in her diary the following:
I have a girlfriend who’s a real chatterbox and I don’t have time for a conversation so I SMS [short message service] her to confirm some plans about meeting tomorrow night. Texting means I don’t have to talk.
The other person, too, refers implicitly to the issue:
My Aunty Janette calls to see how I am getting on. She lives alone so, when I see her number come up, I usually always take her call just in case anything is wrong.
The fact that the speaker takes the call on this occasion only points to the number of occasions when she doesn’t.
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