C. B. Murphy’s comic coming-of-age novel, Cute Eats Cute,takes place in the late 1990s, a time the publisher’s promotional material calls BT, or Before Texting. It’s a clever conceit, and an effective framework not only for situating the story in time but also for situating our modern era in five thousand years of recorded history. Unfortunately, the ad copy is the only place where the term appears. The absence of texting in the novel carries no symbolic significance; it doesn’t color its depiction of daily life or reveal anything about the lives of its characters. Rather, it seems an arbitrary tag assigned by a marketer to enliven the product description.
In this sense, the book’s time period could just have easily been named BOM (Before O Magazine) or BAI (Before American Idol), which raises a question: couldn’t every period of time be named something else? As the familiar BC/AD system demonstrates, just about anything could be year one. For instance, many modern pop historians use punk as a stylistic dividing line, characterizing bands as proto-punk and post-punk; likewise, blues scholars use World War II to denote an artist’s or song’s place on the continuum of aesthetic evolution. During the first half of the 2000s it was common to describe time as pre- or post-9/11. And so on. But something is always before or after something else, and each innovation causes at least a marginal shift in culture and human behavior. Before there was YouTube, people watched cable TV. Before TV, people read books. Before people could text, they emailed. Before email, they called each other on the phone. Before phones, people wrote letters. Back when there were letters, there were long periods of silence. Remember silence? Me neither.
Some think technology has destroyed our ability not only to endure periods of quiet inactivity but to enjoy them as well. Some go so far as to characterize this as a shift in brain chemistry, produced by a constant stream of information and by a habit of jumping back and forth between screens, with the attendant sweeping pronouncements about the deleterious effects of technology on young people’s vocabulary and on our society. BT, they claim, people talked in full sentences. BT, people knew the difference between you’re and your, they’re and their.
I say: no, they did not. BT, a casual dater wouldn’t have received a message saying, “shld u ever want to meet for drink, lmk,” nor a professor a note asking “What’s name of amino acid chain u mentioned in class?” This change in communication style is comparable to the way porn went from having “scenes” with plots and dialogue to “gonzo,” where the movie goes straight to the action. It’s not that we’re rude; we of the texting era just don’t have as much time, or patience, for prelude or introduction. Get to the point so we can get back to doing more of nothing with more gadgets in less time, thx.
But are current generations really stupider than pre- texting ones? LOL! No. BT, the dog ate students’ homework. Plenty of people hand-misspelled sincirely in letters, wedged their way Twitter-style into conversations in person, and ignored lessons about the difference between its and it’s. There’s a relationship between our arbitrary era-divvying and the erosion of our vocabulary and society, but correlation, as they say, isn’t causation. We’ve been taking shortcuts like these since the dawn of time. Ignorance and abbreviation have always existed.