Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the invention of the text message. It was also the day that my dog died. Her name was Satchmo (my dad likes jazz), and she was really old and it was time. My parents were both patting her as it happened, while she lay on her brown cushion by the kitchen door and our dachshund Fess licked a sore spot on her tail. (That’s Fess after blues pianist Professor Longhair — my dad also really likes blues). Satchmo had a happy life, and she left it surrounded by friends. It was a good way to go. We should all be as lucky.
I got the news when I checked my phone in the middle of MATH 120. “Text Message from Mom,” it said, with that little green icon beside it. I swiped the screen as my teacher said something about the divergence of an electric field. The first line was, “Satchmo just died peacefully … ” and I didn’t read any further. I gasped a little and felt that sad twisty lung feeling. Then I sat through 10 more minutes of lecture and didn’t say anything to anyone.
Maybe the lesson of this is that technology is isolating us from each other. I’ve heard that sentiment before, and it seems like it could apply here. I got sad news in an impersonal, technological package. I didn’t get to look a person in the face and show them how I felt in the moment. But the idea that technology is a social crutch has never felt very convincing to me. I understand why my mom wanted to text me the news: She could tell my sister and me at the same time, right after it happened. I don’t feel that the medium undercut the emotion of the moment. Her “love you” was genuine, and I knew it, even if it came in a digital speech bubble.
Actually, I think what yesterday taught me is that I shouldn’t check my phone in class. I’m sort of kidding, but not really. Generally, I treat text messages as a lesser form of communication. I just don’t take them seriously. I dash them off while I’m walking or emailing or brushing my hair. (Or peeing. We’ve all done it.) I read them while I’m mid-conversation with a real, live person. But words are powerful — even just a few words on an iPhone screen. I shouldn’t have read that “Satchmo just died peacefully” while I was supposed to be doing something else.
Sure, texts can’t substitute for real human contact. I texted the news out to my support system at Yale, and I got the personal comfort that I needed. I called my family on the phone, and we shared some sadness and also some stories about each of our days. I went to my classes and had a friendly falafel dinner, and I didn’t feel alone.
It was a little weird to send texts that said, “My dog died today,” but that’s just how things are done nowadays. And anyway, I don’t think the weirdness is the fault of texting itself. Words are never good enough for big things. “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I love you” — they don’t sound like how they feel, no matter how you say them.
And yet, despite their shortcomings, words are a crazy kind of powerful. They sting. They caress. They’ve founded countries, joined people in marriage. And text messages are, more and more, an expressive verbal medium for our generation. They don’t have to signal the rise of an anti-social cohort or the downfall of language.
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the invention of the text message, and I think it’s a day to celebrate. Texts let us share our grief, affect our friends and reveal ourselves to others.
We shouldn’t check them in class.
Sally Helm is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .