this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on April 24, 1999.

In 1996, beepers were the fad. Tucked into jeans pockets, beepers went off in class and even in church. It wasn’t just a tool for yuppies and businessmen, but also for students. Beepers became smaller and cheaper, and soon enough everybody had beepers. In 1997, it was definitely the Internet. Writing letters through e-mail, and chatting through the ICQ or mIRC was the craze. So were “eyeballs,” spamming and staying up late chatting the night away. Internet service providers have probably raked in hundreds and thousands of pesos because of the length of time users spend online. Countless hours of study and sleep time have been lost because of the Net.

In 1998, yet another invention became the in thing. The cellular phone. And the funny thing is, it isn’t even about talking anymore. It’s become about text-messaging. The expert “texter” holds the phone with one hand, and uses the thumb to punch his or her message. These gadgets have become so ordinary, that in Ateneo, no less than the dean for student affairs has issued a letter saying that beepers and cellular phones should be silenced or turned off in class. Apparently, the phenomenon has begun annoying even our teachers.

A lot of students own cell phones now, or at least a lot of students want to. Cellular phones, which were years ago owned only by business man and people on-the-go, have become cheaper and more teenager-friendly. A friend of mine has likened cell phones to cars in terms of style and prestige, with the different brands, colors, features and even accessories. From what was earlier advertised as a tool for the deaf-mute, text messaging has evolved to be the fashion.

Today, cellular phones don’t have to be big, black or bulky. Colors range from red to metallic gray, and prints range from smiley faces to leopard print. Hello Kitty, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh have all joined in accessorizing these units. Cellular phone ownership, brand and unit type have become a status symbol. All these technological innovations are supposed to facilitate human communication. But do they really? While I am now only a touch of a finger away from my fellow texters, texting has sometimes diverted my attention from my current companions. While texting to people in faraway places, many texters have found themselves distracted from whatever they were doing or from whoever they were with. “Happy Birthdays” now are all the same, e-mailed, beeped or texted. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned Hallmark? Or letters? Sentences and words have become shorter too–“See You Later” translating into “C U 18r” and joy becoming “id” smiley faces.

One time, while sitting on a bench, I saw a group of friends just text each other despite the fact that they could have talked to each other face-to-face. And cell phones were supposed to advance communication instead of complicate it! Another friend of mine joked that because of texting, human beings might lose their mouths and vocal chords. It is funny how, despite holding a cellular phone in one hand, many students choose to still look for a phone booth to make a call. I thought the concept behind cellular phones was to make telephones more accessible! But because of the expensive airtime rates, many choose to save their precious prepaid minutes and make a beeline for the pay phone instead. As with other communication media, the cell phone has its share of ironies. Has technology really facilitated human communication? Is it better to text a person, instead of making a personal phone call? And how about those who do not have “text machines”? Aren’t they somehow alienated by their friends who choose to communicate through the medium?

Yet, despite its unfavorable and ironic consequences, technology does amaze me. In fairness to beepers, the Internet and cell phones, they have made our lives easier and more convenient. And isn’t that what technology is all about? As much as it has distracted people, and has had its detrimental effects on those who overdo it, it has been known to bring people together. While there were those who role-played and pretended in the chatrooms, there were those who also bonded and fell in love. Today, there is no excuse not to keep in touch. Texting has made all our hands invisibly connected to one another. Never mind that the beeper and Internet service numbers get so busy, or that it gets so frustrating when your phone tells you “Message Sending Failed.” It’s probably just a matter of time before they put it all together–sending text messages through the Internet, and transmitting beeper messages through cellular phones. It just makes me wonder, what will they think of next? 

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