October 2013

A thumb's up

By David Feela

For a very long civilized time, elocution was the rage. It accounted for the human species’ dominance over the less-articulate creatures of the earth, but that trait has become passé, its social advantages laid bare now that natural selection has re-engineered an older trait, one that pays less and less attention to its physical environment, choosing instead to rely on its codified digital presence and its opposable thumb.

I should disclose that I have very little training in science, even less in archaeology, and a pathetic grasp of technology. A Four Corners version of Edward Snowden with secrets to share I am not, so my remarks on the practice of texting should be taken for what they’re worth. If you have better things to do, please, by all means, do them, even if one of them is checking to see if someone has sent you a text message.

Let me also say I have never sent a text message, which further establishes me as a technological Neanderthal, but in my defense, let it be known that I own an iTouch and a mini iPad; the idea of texting is not completely foreign to me. Let’s just say, I have the equipment which has allowed me to, for example, type using both thumbs and found the experience less than satisfying, a bit like eating a bowl of shredded wheat with a butter knife.

The internet claims the fastest speed for texting – 26 words in 43.24 seconds – was set by a 23-year-old woman from Singapore, then a woman from Britain beat her record, then a man from Singapore using a touch screen, but I suspect anonymous and oblivious individuals are breaking these records every day. Contests like the U.S. National Texting Championship only declare winners from among those who enter the competition. In the backwaters, perhaps along a tranquil section of irrigation ditch here in the West, a virtual Shakespeare may surface one day, one who texts with both speed and style.

On the average, a teenager sends over 3,200 messages a month, the equivalent to roughly 103 phone calls a day. Comparing text messages to phone calls may seem unfair, but only because texters find actual, auditory conversation on a phone uncomfortable. The spontaneity of what to say or what might be said reportedly unnerves hardline texters. The text message provides a more controllable experience, one where a reply may be thought about or edited or deleted.

Sadly, the extinction of this textablethumb species is a certainty, and I’m not talking about those individuals who were filmed falling into fountains or stepping off subway platforms onto electrified tracks while operating their PDAs. Nor am I talking about the ones who simply text while driving. Clearly, behaviors like these will lead to sudden ends for these misfits, and many innocents who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but not necessarily the species.

Another factor I’m not talking about is the carpal-tunnel crippler often nicknamed Blackberry Thumb. It’s more descriptively referred to as a common repetitive-strain injury, and because the thumb has so much less dexterity than the fingers, texters may be more prone to suffer with aches and throbbing pains of the wrist. It may slow the species down, but it definitely won’t lead to its extinction.

It also may be that the textable thumb will survive long enough to provide an identifiable characteristic, like the slight adaptations in beak shapes that Darwin noticed on his finches while visiting the Galapagos Islands. Texters may discover that the nails on their thumbs will cease to grow, or, from setting their phones on vibrate, they may develop a hypersensitive awareness to slight earth tremors, which may evolve into the first human seismograph.

In the end, though, everything the texter has accomplished by adapting to a more oblique way of life will be rendered moot, because technology evolves faster than any species can anticipate. What’s next? A digital chip implanted in the eyelid? A router routed where we don’t even want to speculate? A genome that lights up a cellular universe, brighter than Sirius?

Perhaps in the undisclosed future, an unborn child might ask his father,

How did humans communicate with each other before telepathy?

His father might reply, “Son, they used to text with their thumbs.”

“What’s a thumb?”

David Feela is an award-winning poet, author and essayist in Montezuma County, Colo.