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The Text Message Turns 19

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My 14-year-old daughter has the fastest thumbs in the West. She probably can send more texts per minute than any living teenager and was clearly impressed when I told her that texting has actually been around for longer than she has. I know I impressed her because she texted "My mom just told me something really awesome" to three friends before glancing up to give me a perfunctory "no way."

Yes way, dear child. The first SMS text (which stands for short message system) was sent in the United Kingdom 19 years ago this week by a man named Neil Papworth.

The text said "Merry Christmas," and I suspect that young Neil had no idea what he was unleashing. Personally, I blame him for the death of verbal conversations, and on top of that, I suspect his mother is equally displeased that he probably doesn't call her anymore.

Staying connected -- in the unwired sense -- is an important component of civilization. I love the spirit and energy of online communities that engage us. I really don't even mind the vitriolic exchanges conducted under the cowardly cloak of anonymity; hey, there's nothing like an Internet hater to remind me to lock my front door and set online parental controls on the computer. But nothing replaces conversation with people you know. I worry that we have traded our brick-and-mortar friends for our virtual ones. And that texting is the final nail in the conversation coffin.

Way back when in the beginning of time, we wrote snail mail letters and used telephones to stay in touch with one another. An adult's evening was spent yelling at the teenagers to hang up the phone and do their homework because, most likely, those adults wanted to use the phone themselves. (This led to having households with more than one land line -- originally named "princess" lines for the teenage girls who used them.) Calling rates dropped after 6 p.m. and visiting with friends across the country became more affordable as the evening grew later. And as long as I'm reminiscing, yes, land lines all had curly phone cords that got tangled up with the wires a lot.

Gradually, email replaced telephoning as a way of staying in touch -- and we all know the fate of the snail mail letter. People stopped calling because it was quicker to shoot off an email. Whatever actual calls you needed to make could be done using cell phones, which, back in the day of the dinosaurs, didn't multi-task as cameras, video recorders or mini computers -- they existed exclusively to have verbal conversations. Hard to imagine, eh?

Emails have since been reduced to being the vehicle for recycled old jokes and online chain letters ("Send this to 10 of your closest women friends and you'll receive $10,000 and lots of good karma by a week from Tuesday.") My spam filters pick up more email than I open.

So instead of emailing or talking on a phone, today we IM or iChat. Texting, of course, shortens the exchange considerably when your thumbs grow weary.

How bad has it gotten? Try to top this: My daughter recently texted me from the passenger seat while I was driving her home from school. "Any food in the car?" she wrote. I verbally inquired why she hadn't just, you know, asked me if we had any snacks in the car. "I didn't want to distract you," she said, "you're driving."

I chalked that one up to teenage logic, the part of the brain that doesn't find typing with one's thumbs as difficult as formulating a complete verbal sentence that might have led to a verbal response and perhaps a protracted or extended verbal exchange -- otherwise known as conversation. See where I'm going with this?

When I think back on that series of anti-drug use TV commercials that all ended with the tagline: Talk to your kids, I note that they didn't say "text them." I like conversation. I like the idea that I can hear your inflection and don't need a happy face to tell me if you're joking. I like that I can see your face, look into your eyes and know whether you misheard disapproval in my voice. I don't want the use of capital letters to be the way you know I am angry.

SMS texts generated $114.6 billion in mobile message revenues worldwide last year, but the experts say that's just the beginning. They estimate that mobile networks will earn $726 billion from SMS text messaging over the next five years. I reluctantly concede defeat. But Mr. Neil Papworth better not expect a birthday card from me; he'll have to settle for a text.