Monday, October 18, 2010


My phone is not particularly well suited to texting, but for various reasons I've found myself doing more of it lately.  Even beyond the basic problem of typing on a chiclet keyboard with fingers that did some of their first typing on an Underwood manual, there are a couple of challenges.

For one, I'm used to writing complete sentences, so I find myself compulsively and pointlessly going back and fixing spelling mistakes, checking punctuation and so forth.  Mind, I don't have anything against the usual abbreviations and casual spellings. I doubt it's a sign that the language has gone to pot or that Kids These Days don't learn anything.  More likely it's a sign that full and careful spelling is just not worth the effort if you can get your message across more quickly without it.

The upshot is that I text much, much more slowly than I write.  I'd guess at least four times as slowly and very likely closer to eight or ten [re-reading in 2015, I note that I'm able to text much faster now, with a smartphone and keyboard app, and the character limit is much less visible.  I think my texting is somewhat less terse now, but the overall point of texting technology influencing texting style still stands, I think -- D.H.].  An order of magnitude in quantity generally means a change in quality and this is no different.  Working at such a slow speed, I find every word counts, as typing another is just too much bother.

Side note: Once I was at a conference where computer graphics legend Jim Blinn presented his first ray-traced picture.  Ray-tracing is a technique that carefully follows rays of light through every pixel of the picture, as opposed to the classic "polygon pushing" technique, which Blinn helped pioneer and which is still in wide use today because of its speed.  Polygon pushing determines which surfaces are visible and draws them (more or less directly), saving a bunch of time.  Blinn claimed that one of the nice aspects of ray-tracing was that since it was so slow, around eight hours per frame in that case, as I recall, you had plenty of time to think about what was going to be in the image.

Just so, slowing down to text gives much more time to think about a short message.  I'm sure the situation is different for experienced texters, but even then another factor comes into play: SMS's draconianly (and more or less artificially) short message length.  If you're tweeting, it doesn't matter if you're sitting at your desk typing full steam ahead, or picking out words while squinting at a cell phone, or rattling away with thumbs of lightning.  140 bytes is 140 bytes.

Way back in the early days of electronic communication networks, people sending messages faced a similar problem.  I'm not aware of any particular length restriction on telegraph messages, but for decades telegraph messages had to be transmitted, by hand, in morse code.  As a result every word was expensive -- and punctuation was conveyed in words, notably STOP for a period.  To cope with this, customers developed a concise "telegraphic" style in order to make every word count.

Technology doesn't just enable.  It also constrains, and the effects of such constraint can be just as interesting.

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