“baby is still crying can’t sleep”
“just passed my driving test”
“anyone for crossball tonight”
These are just three of the 1.2 billion utterly mundane conversations that took place on a single day in 2015 across a brand new messaging network. Like the emails, instant messages, and tweets that came in earlier years, this conversation didn’t produce any sound and it didn’t occur face to face; it was purely electronic.
In fact, it was totally invisible. Anyone watching the participants in this conversation would have been hard pressed to notice anything was going on, because they weren’t glancing at mobile phones or pressing buttons on keypads. One might have suspected they had become telepathic, but a trained observer might have spotted the particular brand of glasses and necklaces they were wearing. It’s those glasses and necklaces that heralded a revolution in how we communicated, a revolution that can still be felt even today.
The glasses I’m holding right now don’t seem like anything special. They have a thick black frame with boxy lenses, a very typical style of the teens, and indeed they wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1960s. A closer examination, however, reveals that they contain two microprojectors embedded into each of the arms, providing the wearer with a stereo image. A wireless link to a mobile phone typically provided the computing power.
On their own, the glasses weren’t good for that much. This particular model can’t tell where I’m looking, preventing any decent augmented reality applications, and the image resolution was too low for any real work to be done. As such, they seemed like a piece of immature technology to most.
I also have a necklace here, although it’s so narrow that some might call it a choker. It’s very light, made of a light silver metal, and has a small clasp around the back. If I put it on and adjust it properly, then I can feel it resting perfectly comfortably against my throat, which is really the point; that’s how its embedded electrode array picks up the nervous impulses from my vocal cords and translates them into words.
The necklace was initially aimed at people with speech disorders and the military; not the widest market. But as Ivo Petrovic from the Museum of Rijeka explains, it was the combination of the glasses and the necklace that mattered:
“The pairing of these two objects – one that can ‘hear’ your subvocalised words without you having to make a single sound, another that can display those words without on an invisible screen – meant that people could communicate while doing more or less anything at all. They could be in a restaurant, a meeting, a lecture, or even an exam, and they could be talking to any number of people anywhere in the world without anyone noticing. It was a new medium that rivalled the telegram and the radio in importance, and almost incidentally provided a near-perfect ubiquitous method of data capture.”
As usual, it was the young who truly embraced the new technology. Children and teenagers have always struggled with their parents for independence and privacy, particularly during the recurrent moral panics in the 20th and 21st centuries. Necklaces were simply the newest and most invisible outlet for their desires.
Several competing messaging networks sprung up within a few months of the first devices’ launch, with the Dees network being foremost among them, fracturing the user base across social and geographic lines. It wasn’t until 2016 that efforts by the IEEE and European Union finally established a common protocol for the new ‘silent messaging service’ that allowed the market to flourish.
Judging by the billions of messages being sent every day by 2017 and the trillions sent just a decade later, the world had a massive demand for silent messaging. SMSes replaced or enhanced a whole slew of older interfaces from remote controls to note-taking to touchscreens, and eliminated the gap between intention and action to produce a crude form of ‘thought control’.
SMS users rapidly invented a new vocabulary as well. The subvocal impulses that necklaces detected didn’t convey the richness and nuance of the tones and volume of normal speech, so new words and repetition were required to remedy the effects of the lowered bandwidth. Of course, the ungrammatical nature of many SMSes disturbed more conservative users, but attempts to treat SMSes in the same way as phone calls or instant messages were sorely missing the point and the power of this new medium.
Soon enough, the euphoria of SMSes quickly gave way to renewed fears about privacy and dependence. Just as letters, phone calls and instant messaging gave teenagers new freedoms and gave parents new reasons to worry, the glasses and necklaces linked friends together in a way that meant they never, ever had to be alone.
Indeed, ‘cognitive entanglement’ originated as a description of how children and teenagers used SMSes to communicate so frequently and quickly that they seemed to share thoughts and moods. Today, we use the term in a very different way, but it’s easy to see how startling this new type of instant messaging could seem to adults who had to use laborious interfaces like keyboards and screens to talk to one another; adults were unnerved by groups of completely silent teenagers abruptly bursting into laughter or performing some other kind of co-ordinated behaviour.
Over time, as the glasses and necklaces became increasingly light and unobtrusive, they forced the re-evaluation of many traditional practices – not least exams, interviews, and all other kinds of assessment. Students in India, Taiwan, and Japan were such notorious users of SMSes during exams that some alarmed authorities suggested constructing Faraday cages around exam halls; and employers struggled to deal with interviewees who seemed to have the perfect answer to every question.
An unexpected side-effect of the explosion in SMS usage was that conversations and thoughts that had previously gone unrecorded were now made permanent, if not necessarily public. Beyond the chilling implications for expanded surveillance and censorship of individuals by states and companies, they aggravated the problems faced by companies – particularly financial firms – that tried to avoid recording any potentially illegal conversations. In some cases, their refusal to use SMSes ended up slowing down their operations to the point where they ceased to be competitive against younger and nimbler companies.
It’s easy for us historians to see SMSes simply as a modestly-sized archive of relatively low-grade information about early 21st century behaviour, especially when compared to what came in later decades. In truth, these glasses and necklaces were more than that. They represented nothing less than the death of loneliness and isolation for millions of children, and they paved the way towards completely new social and political structures.