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Texting is Cerebral

This is a reaction to Frank Chimero’s “Leave the Phone At Home” where he talks about buying an Apple Watch and how he feels it has freed him in some regards:

I can now leave the house without my phone and still maintain a line of connection to the world with messages, email, and maps. It is freeing. I have no social media on the watch, so no snares in which to get stuck in idle moments. It’s a tremendous relief to be free of the drag of demented global consciousness, and I predict that many others will find the appeal of this situation.

I understand and agree with a lot of the sentiment behind this piece. What Frank described in that passage was precisely what I was looking for and anticipating when I got my own Apple Watch. I wanted to be able to free myself from the “global consciousness” and the urge to reach for my phone in moments of idleness. While the watch did help me “unplug” and learn to face my own boredom, it also tried to change my style and method of communication and I did not like that. What I realized is: texting is cerebral. The form has handed down a tradition of brevity and idiom. Dictation has not. So I find myself in a situation where I can’t dictate a text message. Or rather, I don’t want to.

Here’s a common message between my brother and I:

Screenshot of an iMessage bubble saying “Duuuuuuuuude! Sacker hack packin.”

How did we end up conversing that way? I don’t know. It just evolved from the medium and our relationship. I promise you: there is meaning in that message. In fact, for every person that I chat with on at least a daily basis, there is a unique idiom for that conversation.

What I found when I had a smart watch was that the convenience of dictating a response via my wrist was mired in the conversational idioms of each person I communicated with. When I respond affirmatively to a colleague who asks me a question, a bland “Yes.” is appropriate. But when I respond affirmatively to my brother who asks a question, that same “Yes.” is expressed in a secret, brotherly vernacular which results in the message “Chyeah!” Both messages are communicating the same thing but in different forms, each shaped for the intended audience to communicate whilst engendering a stronger relationship. And one requires way more hand-holding on my part to get the computer to record the message’s form. The medium—texting vs. dictating—is, at least in part, the message.

My smart watch forcedly curbed the style of my textual communication, and I do not like that. It’s no fun texting for utility. If speaking and writing are two different forms of communication, I think it follows that texting and dictating are two different forms of communication. And the smart watch only really allows for one of those methods. It’s almost like I needed two threads for each person I communicate with: one for utility (dictation on the watch), one for relationship and intimacy (textual via my fingers). Intermixing these forms of communication in the same thread jumbles all the meaning in the conversation—“why did he just say ‘Yes’ instead of the usual ‘Chyeah’? He never says that! Is something wrong?”—and introduces a point for confusion.

In my—albeit short—experience with a smart watch, here’s a where dictation falls short of textual messaging (reactionary messages are particularly difficult to translate faithfully):

Abbreviations & acronyms: how do you dictate “lol”? I assume you spell it out. But what about all the other common textual abbreviations? “FWIW”, “FYI”, “stfu”. And what about their usage in sentence form: “that’s total BS”? Oh, and don’t forget how you’re perceived on the other end. Texting “my wifi is 5ghz” makes you appear like a lay person. That same message, dictated, will likely result in the perception of an irritating, English language perfectionist: “My Wi-Fi is five gigahertz.” (If you want to save face, you can always attempt to dictate something like “no caps my double-you eye eff eye is number five gigahertz” and hope the computer can pick up on what you’re trying to do.)

Capitalization: something is being said in “LOL” vs. “lol”. Something is being communicated in “COME HOME NOW” vs. “come home now”. Unless you take the time to learn how to talk to your watch, it’s hard to know the right incantation that’ll lead to the desired result (i.e. “Caps on. Come home now. Caps off.”)

Word Elongation: “so funny” is one thing, “soooooooooooooo funny” is something else entirely. And what about similar variants, like “Sooooooo soooooooo funny”? They all communicate different things, but the dexterity required to achieve them varies wildly between typing and dictating.

Emojis: 🤷 how do you even? I honestly don’t know. Is it: “I applied for a job today, ‘fingers-crossed-emoji twice in a row’”?

Timing: referring to something like a point in time in a YouTube video, how do you dictate “jump to 0:34”? Is it: “jump to zero semicolon three four”? The mental load required to translate textual form in your head to matching dictational form is too much. So what do you do? I’d probably try to dictate the way I’d communicate textually, fail a couple times, then give up and translate what I’m trying to say to something I know the computer will more easily be able to transcribe: “fast-forward the video to the thirty-four second mark”. Ugh.

Grammar: trying to avoid those cuss words? “I was talking to Dan and he said ‘F*** that!’”. How do you dictate that? “I was talking to Dan and he said, quote, F asterisk asterisk asterisk that exclamation point close quote.” Rolls right off the tongue, don’t it?

Punctation: is everything! “Shut up!!!!!!!” is easy to type. But to dictate? How do you add all those exclamation points? Is it “shut up exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point.” Maybe one day we can automate that so all you have to say is “Shut up start command add ten exclamation points end command.”

Idioms & colloquial language: we all have it, that “in the know” language. Words that, if anyone outside your bubble read them, they’d have no idea what you’re talking about. Neither does your watch.

Now combine all of the above:

To complicate matters even more, the influence and meaning of all the variants listed above vary from person to person. Each person I communicate with via text has a distinct “texting accent”. “HAHA” from one person makes me picture them with a small smile come across their face, while “HAHA” from another person might make me picture them literally laughing hysterically out loud in a crowded room.

I could go on. Most texting conversations I have revolve around an intimate, shared vocabulary that expresses how we communicate with each other in that form—and that is wildly different from how we communicate with each other via speech (as it should be).

If I treated everyone in my personal life like I would in a business situation, I suppose dictation would be fine because then I will always be perceived as proper in my textual communications. But what fun is that?

And so I journey on with my smartphone. I guess if I want to disconnect from the global conciseness and learn to face my boredom without turning to my phone, I’ll have to do it without the help of technology. Imagine that.