22 JUNE 2007
THIS MONTH'S FEATURES
FACES OF CHANGE AND CHANGELESS PLACES
cn hrdly wt 2 clmp
my tith on yr clt
2 brk my fall
my tngue nside n
around yr pnk cnt
2 lse n ur jus
d wrds i lie w/
n wht u wnt 2 hir
THIS IS the first stanza of the poem “Alba” by Ricardo de Ungria, professor and former chancellor of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. It is part of the book Eros Pinoy published by Anvil Publishing in 2002. It was the first poem I read in Text or SMS format — a lovely, ingenious piece that explored the tension between sexually explicit diction and the elliptical, almost cryptic abbreviation associated with text messaging. Showing even as it hid, involving the reader as both codebreaker and intimate, peeping tom and partner. I read the poem just a few months after the president of the Philippines was unseated by a series of Metro Manila-based protests that were fanned and fed by text messages. SMS-ing like mad were segments of the population upset by the outcome of the reality-show-cum-telenovela called the impeachment proceedings.
As early as 2002, students of media and members of academe were cataloguing and analyzing the relationship between Filipinos and the keypads of their mobile phones. For example, history professor Vicente L. Rafael, then with the University of California at San Diego and now with the University of Washington (Seattle), quoted from and interviewed various members of Jose F. Lacaba’s Plaridel Papers mailing list to write his essay “The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines.” It remains interesting reading until now and has the added bonus of capturing the mood of — shall we call it text empowerment? — during the heady demonstrations against President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada. (And lest we think that texting is another case of “Only in the Philippines,” Rafael recently informed me that the essay has been included in other books on media, in the United States, Italy, and India.)
Even before Edsa Dos, however, people were already using this “secondary feature” of the mobile phone to finesse the physical difficulties of going around the metropolis, to find family members lost in mallwide sales — and, yes, of course, to cheat during pop quizzes and unit tests. Yet today people still wonder (and worry) what texting does to the Filipino’s communication skills. The images are familiar and often cited: a couple sitting together at a table, holding, not each other’s hands, but their glowing mobile phones; visitors at a wake, heads bowed, not to pray but to better read the latest addition to their inbox; or (and this is from personal experience) a new graduate applying for an editorial position in a publishing house by sending:
(No, I didn’t reply and no, hindi puwede.)
THAT PEOPLE worry is understandable. After all, television, when it arrived in the ’50s and ’60s, may have diminished the time families sat facing each other to swap stories or accounts of the day just ended, and undermined the communal observance of the Angelus or the saying of the rosary. But at least it still brought them together in living rooms or bedrooms, laughing and squealing at the same shows, sharing the same memories and accounts of Leila Benitez, Sylvia La Torre, Oscar Obligacion, “Sea Hunt,” and “Perry Mason.” Today, with more channels and cheaper sets, the children and grandchildren of these families watch their own shows on their own sets in their own rooms. Could texting do the same thing? Will it bring about a country of not only bad spellers, but of people woefully unable to interact when face to face?
I don’t think so — at least not yet. Television, after all, is one-way. It talks at you, not with you. And, despite epithets like kapamilya and kapuso, it remains, above all, a pusher: news anchors shout at you, commercials and station IDs (in what amounts to the same thing) have their audio tracks pre-set to decibels above normal programming. It acknowledges as much when it appropriates the phone and the modem as tools for you to share your thoughts, your pictures, and in the case of “all-text” channels, your desire for sexual adventure. The only way to communicate directly with a television set is to press the off button or the button that changes the channel. Even this is not a communicative act; it ends communication instead.
Not so with the mobile phone. Despite what the marketing divisions of phone makers trumpet about their everything-in-one devices, the mobile phone remains a tool for communication in a country that is A) an archipelago B) full of people torn apart by poverty, inadequate education, class, and culture. It allows people who have long been talked at (or talked to) to talk among themselves, allowing them, at a relatively small price, to complete the many small transactions of everyday life. Through the artful manipulation of a few plastic keys and their re-presentation as pixels on a tiny screen, the invisible in our society achieve a sense of presence and belonging in a greater community that has been typified by alienation, isolation, and separation.
We are a people of small groups who think in terms of family and barkada (close friends) before neighborhoods, of clans, classes, and tribes before nation, of provinces and regions before country. Texting allows us to affirm those few relationships that inform our lives whenever and wherever we want to. And if we take this sense of presence and belonging, of being part of a loop no matter how small it is, as a basis for communication, then texting — no matter the subject of one’s message — affirms the social nature of our being.
my nsetip wet
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