If you’ve seen the recent “Einstein” meme that’s been going around, you’ve noticed all the pictures of people texting like mad in groups. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry – I’m going to be talking about it in about a week, since it falls better in a “Life” post than here.

But one of the things that bothers me is the way it is assumed that the people are interacting with technology alone. I suppose it’s possible that they are having a conversation with Siri, or playing Zork or some other text-based game, but if they are texting with someone else, they are interacting with humans. Yes, it is mediated by technology, and yes, the person they are physically present with is not getting their full attention…but does that mean the person on the other end of the text is any less deserving of their attention?

What if, for example, these images were taken during Hurricane Sandy, when people were worried about friends and trying to get in touch with them? Perhaps there’s a group of people who are out together on election night, and are anxiously checking on returns together. Even if they are simply reading news accounts or blogs – they are still having human interaction. It may not be real-time or physically present, true, but that’s not the fault of the cel phone.

If you’re upset that people are able to communicate extra-temporally and non-corporeally, you have to go back much further – to the invention of the written word.


“While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words–of which you have enough and to spare–some sweet sem­blance of yourself.”
Heloise, from a letter to Abelard

For those unfamiliar with the story of Abelard and Heloise, the link is provided above, though I much prefer the story told in puppetry via Being John Malkovich. The short part of it is that it was very intense in the beginning – they fall in love (not such a bad thing) they have a child (kind of bad in the 11th century) her relatives castrate Abelard (bad pretty much whenever) and the two of them end up as a monk and a nun. Heloise, in fact, went on to be quite a powerful and effective abbess.

But as entertaining as that story is, that’s not why they are remembered. It’s what happened after the enforced separation that captures the imagination.

They sexted.

Well, to be fair, they didn’t necessarily go out of their way to be hot and heavy the way we might consider it now. But still:

“Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.”

“[I]f the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if thou be not ashamed, concubine…”

That was written by a nun. In the middle ages. Telling a guy that she last schtupped fifteen years ago that she really still has the hots for him, and doesn’t regret a single thing they did.

They are buried together; that’s kinda romantic, right?

Now, I’m not holding this up as a great example of successful love. In fact, I personally feel that Abelard was a bit of a whiny jerk and Heloise…well, just a bit off-kilter. I am, however, pointing out that the relationship was quite a powerful one not only for them but also as it resonates with lovers and scholars since then. It still is studied, discussed, and portrayed almost a millenium later. Because they wrote stuff down. I’m also not saying that

Text-Me & Actual-Me

Full disclosure: I have quite often been involved in relationships whose primary means of communication were text. In fact, my first attempt at asking a girl to go out was in the 7th grade, through a poem:

Dear Antoinette
I’m willing to bet
That you might like me;
The reason, you see
Is because I like you
But that’s nothing new.
And now for the killer:
This poem’s by Gray Miller.

I’m happy to say that the prose (and yes, occasional poetry) improved over time, and I recovered from Antoinette’s stern rebuttal (“Don’t talk like that, I don’t think about you that way. Besides, I like Malcolm”). As puberty developed my physical ability to love, so did my words develop a text-based loving identity. Long notes written in high school. Letters written in college. Tracing words to my wife in the dirt as I lay in a ditch deep in the night in the mountains of Camp Pendleton. I still have a lot of those “snail mail” letters, as well as many journals, letters to myself, some loving, some not so much.

Then the internet hit, and it became even easier to express your love as the TextMe. There was Internet Relay Chat, with the virtual intimacy of “private” chats where suddenly you had not only privacy from others but also the anonymity of talking with a complete stranger. Does it seem strange that we would often open up to that blinkin cursor? Why is that any stranger than spilling your life story to a person next to you in a bar, or to a screened-off area window in a confessional? There was email, and suddenly you could not only send loving messages, you could torture yourself by re-reading them after the relationship was over – a TextEx – or use them as verbal shrapnel in a Look what you promised! kind of attack. Then texting became the preferred means of communication, because (as Dr. Turkle quotes a teen in Alone Together) “…you can be more yourself.”

But it is all human interaction – at least, on your end. The problem is that text is a lousy medium for conveying emotional information. Here’s an example: I say to someone “I quite enjoyed our date.” That means I enjoyed it a lot, on my end.

However, if my friend is speaking British English, quite means moderately. Suddenly that statement is not nearly so useful. And lord help me if I tell a British lass she is “quite pretty“.

Of course, that’s a parlor trick of language. But the fact is that when it comes to matters of the heart, people don’t take the time to make sure the words they use mean the same thing. I’ve personally run into minefields over the interpretation of the words “dance with“, “see“, and, quite memorably, “make sure there’s some mayonnaise in the jar left for me.” When you run into words like “love” or “commitment” it gets ridiculous.

The more you correspond via text without personal contact, the more you build this image of the person on the other end of the words out of your own assumptions of what they meant by those words, or out of imaginary conversations you had with them in your head, or out of misremembered conversations you actually did have. And at some point that text-person may actually come into contact with the actual person, and the contrast may not be favorable. During one long-distance relationship my partner and I actually set aside an hour or two at the beginning of each reunion just to integrate the imaginary and the real selves in our heads.

For Heloise, fifteen years after the love of her life had been lost, she happened to read a book he wrote about the calamities of his life. It didn’t exactly match the way she remembered it, and she wrote him about it – and started what has endured as some of the most romantic poetry ever. Shakespeare wrote sonnets to a mysterious Lady (ok, probably Queen Elizabeth, but you never know). Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” remains some of the most amazing discourse on love you’ll ever read.

“It’s Made of People!”

And yet you don’t hear people talking about how “fake” and “distant” Shakespeare’s love sonnets are. We don’t talk about how annoying e.e. cummings is with the weird word usements he structures (“Muscles better and nerves more“). Why do we assume that these people who have combined the power of writing with the immediacy of talking and eliminated distance are any less connected?

Nor, I think, are they any more connected. The reason I pity them (and myself, at times) is because the speed at which the communication happens can increase the speed at which that disillusion of the text-me vs the real-me occurs. Whether it’s just a lie about weight on a profile or a realization that the declaration of love you made at 2am via text doesn’t seem so strong at 8am in the kitchen, the cycle of reality smashing into expectations goes faster, I believe.

Abelard, who lost – and, perhaps, gained – more than most through the failures and triumphs of the language of love, should have the last word:

“Against the disease of writing one must take special precautions, since it is a dangerous and contagious disease.”
― Pierre AbélardThe Letters of Abélard and Héloïse

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