2nd Aside PtI – or – An Anti-SMS Manifesto

Back in the introduction to rave no.2  First Post PtII-A New Kind of Blog, you were mercifully spared a diverticulum that threatened to side track the entire enterprise, you will now be subjected to it full force as its very own post – sorry about that.

So as to not kill entirely the feelings of good will toward this blog has thus far engendered, I will mention that we are commencing a two part essay touching on a subject that is near and dear to out hears here at Meme Merchants, and very central to what this blog is all about namely words, language, [the english language in particular] and the evolution of modern society – before that though we launch into a rant on the deleterious trend of impoverishment of language being fostered by modern media run amok.

So to begin

Have you ever wondered why your cell phone company after charging you $500 or $1000 for your 14 year olds excessive text messaging bill at the end of the month is willing to politely back down and wipe out all or most of that fee? [at least the first time]

What your Phone Company really doesn’t want you to know about SMS

SMS, Short Message Service, is a system that it was originally devised by Franco-German consortium of cell phone companies as a way to sell small bits of bandwidth that were normally consumed by the electronic overhead  at enormously inflated prices at almost no cost to themselves, so, if you pay anything at all for your text messaging service you are probably getting screwed.  Here is how it works, from Wikipedia:

The key idea for SMS was to use this telephony-optimized system, and to transport messages on the signaling paths needed to control the telephony traffic during time periods when no signaling traffic existed. In this way, unused resources in the system could be used to transport messages at minimal cost. However, it was necessary to limit the length of the messages to 128 bytes (later improved to 140 bytes, or 160 seven-bit characters) so that the messages could fit into the existing signaling formats.

What that really means is that every moment your cell phone is turned on it is constant communication with nearby towers and your network provider, ‘checking in’ for various purposes necessary to keep the network running.  Every time that it does so there is a small packet of data transmitted back and forth between your phone and your providers network and the tower.  Some clever fellows realized that there was usually a small, 128byte space in each data packet that could be used to transmit a very short message and that a great many of these messages could be transmitted without impacting the traffic capacity of the network as a whole for voice or data communications, [revenue in other words]  thus the text message was born.

Very clever, what’s not to love about this?

Nothing, except when you do the math the price structure starts to look a little rapacious.  The best figure I could find for actual analog voice to digital data conversion for a typical G3 cell phone network is on the order of 13 kilobits/second or 1,625 Bytes/sec [8 kbit/sec is minimum phone line quality, by the way] which works out to 97,500 Bytes/minute which in turn works out to the equivalent of 762 text messages.  So, if you are used to paying, say, 10¢/min for a cell phone call and call that fair, what would you then call paying even 1¢ for the data equivalent of 1/762 of a one minute phone call.  I have a couple of choice words for it, maybe you can think of some too.

Bear in mind that the actual data transmission rate for a G3 cell phone network is much, much faster, on the order of a minimum of 200-kilobits/sec [this is now considered SLOW] to 5-20 Megabits/second, but for the sake of this discussion  I am concerned primarily about the conversion of acoustical voice information to digital data, here not actual network speed.

To add insult to serious financial injury, some providers consider SMS messages as ‘best effort’ service, that is they are not guaranteed to get through [most do though, better than 95%] within a certain number of tries, or within a certain time period, you’ll have to ask your provider if they refund you if a message does not get through [or can even tell if it did].

The more value conscious left side of my brain then is not particularly happy with SMS, but what about the more chatty right hand side?  Unfortunately that more emotive side of me is not any happier with the situation.  I can’t actually repeat what that side of the brain would like to say on a polite blog, but I can say, “Don’t text me, I’m not going to answer”.  If the building I am in is on fire, or is under terrorist attack and you want to warn me, you are going to have to find some other way to get through.  I do carry a cell phone almost all the time, so it isn’t that I don’t want to hear from you, it’s that I want to hear your voice – I miss that.

Well – maybe there is one exception – if there is a phone number or an address that I actually need, something that is most properly text to begin with – and we’re both in a hurry – and I don’t have a pen and paper handy – or I’m on the road and don’t have a hand free – or I can’t hear you anyway because the phone connection is crap – and because I would never give a device so easily lost such direct access to my computer as to have access to my email account [or any other part of my inner digital life] – then – by all means give me a call and let me know that you are about to save me the hassle of trying to deal with copying it down by texting the handful of bytes of information that I actually need, then by all means do it – otherwise please just call me, I really would really rather talk to you. It seems to me that there are simply too many layers and levels of information in that sound, the human voice, your voice, that are not reproducible in a one hundred forty character strings of text, however artfully arranged.  Brevity is the soul of wit… …’tis true, ’tis true…  but could you image a Shakespearean speech in 140 character chunks????  [please do not try this one at home]

It seems that in a certain way that the text message is in actuality a form of anti-communication where the subtext inherent in the media that of the message is encoded in is, “I really don’t want to/have time to/couldn’t be bothered to talk to you directly, so I am texting you instead.”  SMS it seems is as much as a way to keep people at a distance as much as a means to communicate.  Unfortunately the SMS system seems to be one of the coldest and most limited forms of communication in modern usage, it is also one of the most pervasive, with over 2.4 billion active users.  I can think of several long standing tiffs and  quarrels begun and sustained between friends or family members who habitualy communicate by means of SMS texting [maybe you know some of these people too] –  text as hostile act – how wonderful.  I’m not even going to start on the overt acts cyber-bullying and sexting that are going on.  There is probably the text that saved my marriage out there somewhere, but I am sure there are many more, I WANT A DIVORCE logged by SMS than the other.

What amazes me is that there are people, smart, well educated ones, who write odes to the excellence of the brevity of the text message, and others who create contests for best 140 character message.  There IS something to be said for shortness as a form, some interesting possibilities for aphorism, poetry, pun, haiku & ect. but have you ever actually seen that happen? [do try it if you wish], but with the relentless discipline of 140 characters what you actually seem to get in the real world – instead of the ghost of Norman Maclean’s Scottish Presbyterian father, admonishing you to an economy of thought and expression, “Again, half as long!” – is a kind of cheating, a compression of thought into a near gibberish of textese,  [txt-speak, txtese, chatspeak, txt, txtspk, txtk, txto, texting language, txt lingo, SMSish, or txt talk] deleted parts of speech, and truncated sentence structure and absent punctuation in an attempt to compress more meaning into a cripplingly limited 128Byte container.

This has such an impoverishing effect on communication, I really want nothing to do with it.  Yet, all of this over concern brevity seems to take considerable effort.  People, especially younger ones, seem to prefer to carry on conversations by SMS rather than voice – legend has it even when within conversational distance – when there is no other pressing reason, even as they fill their lives with ever denser and richer media experiences in every other department.  Why is that?

The text message then seems to be a perfect example of what Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the expression, “The medium is the message,” that is, the media has certain intrinsic properties that define the message itself in terms of its communicative effect, and its social context and consequences.  This can get fairly technical, having to with sense ratios, brain activity and such that is independent of the message content itself, but the gist is pretty straight forward, television as a medium has certain intrinsic limiting qualities regardless of whether what you are watching is NOVA or Numb3rs, and which are completely different than radio or a newspaper.

This brings us to another much discussed, but apparently little understood, principle that McLuhan introduced in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964, that is the notion of Hot and Cold media [or warm and cool]; which in the days before HD and everything had become touted as High-Def, caused a great deal of confusion amongst readers.  In a nut shell [I am leaving out some important concepts], a cold medium is one that is low-definition, sparsely filled with data and requiring a high degree of participation by the audience’s intelligence to complete –  bare text for instance requires the participation of the reader’s brain and imagination to be ‘heard’ by the mind, a Redbook CD played through an audiophile quality sound system requires no such completion.  A hot medium, on the other hand, is one that is high-def, or well filled with data and requires very little participation from the perceiver to ‘complete’ – 70mm IMAX in 3D with THX 10.1 digital surround sound is about as hot a form of media as exists – in these thermal terms the SMS text message is hovering some where around 13 Kelvin, just above the triple point of Hydrogen – don’t touch with bare hands.  Even a petroglyph seems to have more informational content, just ask an anthropologist, apparently a petroglyph can be expanded into an entire book! [that was a joke]

McLuhan, did by the way, did of course, extend his analogy of hot and cold to the domain cultures and the media that they were defined by, but that is a subject for a future rave.

The general evolutionary trend in media in modern society is towards ever hotter forms of media, that contain multi-sensory information and that are becoming more and more immersive, the question is, if so why does the text message seem to be so successfully bucking the trend?

So, what does any of this have to do with the deeper inner workings here at M^2? other than the irish side of the brain seems to be winning? – or running riot seemingly.

Stay tuned for Part II of this discussion to find out.

Your friend,



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