OFFBEAT: The electronic leash

There's a story about an old farmer who finally has a telephone installed in his remote cabin after others convince him to embrace m
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

There's a story about an old farmer who finally has a telephone installed in his remote cabin after others convince him to embrace modern technology. The phone rings often, but the farmer refuses to pick it up. When a friend asks why the farmer won't answer his phone, the farmer simply shrugs and replies, "Why should I? I installed it for my convenience."

Lately, I've been feeling a lot like that farmer.

My friends, family and even co-workers have accused me of living behind the times. Apparently I'm one of the few in civilized society who have yet to join the ultra-abbreviated and instantly gratifying world of text messaging.

It's not necessarily because I'm cheap (a label I'm not ashamed to admit I've earned after refusing to spend more than $5 at a casino.) I could get a basic text-messaging plan for about $5 a month. As one friend pointed out, that's a sandwich.

For me, it's more about the principle. The ability to text message makes someone virtually accessible at all times. No longer can they use the excuse of being trapped in a boring meeting, at a movie, or (God forbid) in church.

Apparently nothing is sacred anymore, because I've caught people texting in each of those places. True, one could always ignore the messages and respond later.

But then there's the guilt factor. It seems to me technology has split the expectation for what's considered a "reasonable" window of time to reply into a sliver of what it once was.

When people still used primarily landline phones, there was an unspoken grace period of a few days. This allowed time for us to return from a long weekend out of town or a hectic week when we'd worked such long hours that by the time we got around to checking the answering machine, it was too late to call back.

With cell phones, the apologies began if we missed a call earlier that day.

And now that we have e-mail, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.com and instant messaging, the tools intended to give us greater freedom at times feel more like an electronic leash. Throw in texting, and the shock collar tightens just a little.

Some argue that texting saves them valuable time by eliminating the need to call to confirm minor details, like dinner plans or work schedules.

There's certainly evidence to back that up.

Last year, a typical U.S. mobile subscriber sent or received about 357 text messages each month, compared to placing or receiving 204 phone calls, according to CellSigns, a leading mobile applications company.

Though the number of calls has remained relatively steady, the number of text messages is up 450 percent from just two years prior. And the second quarter of 2008 was the second consecutive quarter in which the average number of text messages sent was significantly higher than the average number of phone calls placed.

OK, I'll admit that a few quick text messages could probably improve my social life.

I've already missed out on a few dinners and maybe a party or two because friends naturally assumed they could text me an invite as they made spontaneous plans. I've also missed the indescribable bonding experience that comes with receiving a drunken photo message of someone's private body art. Or those cutely cryptic little notes my nephew used to send when he got his first phone at the age of 5, before he could actually spell.

(Call me old-fashioned, but I've vowed my kids won't have phones until they've at least gotten a driver's license.)

But there's also evidence that meaningful conversations are being replaced by texting blitzes.

While most people think of teens tapping away under their desks in class and in the car, they make up fewer than 20 percent of all texters. The largest and fastest-growing group? Middle-aged women. The median age of a typical texter is about 38, Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Laura Merritt says. She explained this is because parents, usually mothers, are finding this is the most reliable way to communicate with their kids.

Personally, I'd prefer the phone call. If it's important, I think it deserves more than half-distracted texts in the midst of work meetings or ordering lunch. I'll wait.

And if you just can't resist showing me your freshly inked armpit, trust me: You can wait. After all, that's what Facebook is for.