Object 5

Silent Messaging

2017, Earth

"just bought roses for a special someone :)"

"anyone watching the crossball tonight?"

"no way are the dems going to win in ohio after this"

Three mundane messages, lost amid a stream of 1.2 billion more, all sent on a single day in 2017. Like the emails, instant messages, and tweets that came before, the messages were purely electronic, totally invisible, and completely silent.

If you watched the participants in these conversations, though, you'd have been hard pressed to notice that they were talking to each other at all; they weren’t typing at keyboards or even thumbing on a smartphone hidden in their pocket. People born a century or two earlier might have resorted to magic as an explanation, but a perceptive observer would have spotted the particular brand of glasses and necklaces the person was wearing, and the tell-tale twitches of their vocal cords. Those glasses and necklaces heralded a revolution in how humanity communicated with one another, a revolution that can still be felt today.

The glasses I'm holding right now don't seem particularly special. They have a thick black frame with boxy lenses, a 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 microprojectors embedded into each of the arms, providing the wearer with a virtual stereo image. The arms of the glasses hold a modest amount of computing power along with a short-range radio antenna to connect to a nearby smartphone.

On their own, the glasses aren’t good for that much. The model I have here can't even tell where I'm looking, preventing any decent augmented reality applications. What's more, the image resolution is far too low for any real work to be done. They were cheap toys.

I also have a necklace here, although it's so short that some might call it a choker. It's very light, made of a silvery metal, with an unusually wide clasp around the back. If I put it on and adjust it properly, I can feel it resting comfortably against my throat, which is really the point as that's how its embedded electrode array picks up the nervous impulses from my vocal cords and translates them into words. All I need to do is mouth a sentence — without making a single noise — and it’ll be instantly digitised. Like the glasses, this necklace had a limited market, aimed largely at people with speech disorders and the military.

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 sound, another that can display those words on a floating screen — meant that people could communicate while doing more or less anything at all. They could be at dinner, in a meeting, a lecture, or even an exam, and they could talk to any number of people anywhere in the world without anyone nearby knowing. 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 guardians for independence and privacy, especially during the recurrent moral panics in the 20th and 21st centuries (and, to be fair, the rest of known history). Necklaces were simply the newest outlet for their desires, and certainly the most inconspicuous.

Several competing messaging networks sprung up within a few months of the first devices' launch, with Dees and Pype dividing up most of the pie*. Judging by the billions of messages being sent each day by 2017 and the trillions sent just a few years later, there was massive demand for silent messaging. SMSes enhanced and replaced a slew of older interfaces, and by eliminating the gap between intention and action to produce a crude form of 'thought control' of devices, they were unrivaled until direct brain interfaces.

SMS users rapidly invented a new vocabulary to suit the technology. Since the subvocal impulses that necklaces detected couldn't convey the richness and nuance of normal speech, new words and repetition were required to remedy the effects of the lowered bandwidth. Of course, the ungrammatical nature of this new vocabulary disturbed contemporary conservative commentators, but attempts to treat SMSes in the same way as phone calls or instant messages were sorely missing the potential of the new medium.

Soon enough, the euphoria of SMSes quickly gave way to renewed fears about privacy and dependence. Just as letters, phone calls and early casters such as Facebook and Twitter gave teenagers new freedoms and parents new fears, glasses and necklaces linked friends together in a way that meant they never, ever had to be alone.

'Cognitive entanglement' was a term used to describe how young people used SMSes to share thoughts and moods in a way that seemed like telepathy. We use the term in a very different way today, but it's easy to see how startling this new mode of communication must have been to adults who had previously used laborious interfaces such as keyboards and screens to talk to one another. It must have been deeply unnerving for them to see groups of completely silent teenagers abruptly bursting into laughter or performing some other kind of co-ordinated behaviour with no warning whatsoever.

As glasses and necklaces became even lighter and more invisible, they forced the re-evaluation of many traditional practices including exams, interviews, and all other kinds of in-person assessments. Students in India, Taiwan, and Japan were such notorious users of SMSes during exams that some authorities suggested constructing Faraday cages around their premises, and employers struggled to deal with interviewees who seemed to have the perfect answer to every question.

Another unexpected side-effect of the explosion in SMSes was that conversations and thoughts that had previously gone unrecorded were now made permanent, if not necessarily public. Beyond the expanded surveillance and censorship that this enabled, they aggravated the problems faced by corporations, and particularly financial firms, that tried to avoid recording any potentially illegal conversations. Some resorted to the obvious tactic of banning SMSes, but this usually slowed down their operations to an unacceptably uncompetitive level. If you wanted to work, you had to be proficient with SMSes.

It's easy for us historians to see SMSes as simply an archive of low-grade information about early 21st-century culture, yet in truth they represented a massive transformation in that most fundamental of human behaviours — communication.

*With both networks being commercial entities, they most certainly did not interoperate, and it wasn't until 2018 that efforts by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and grassroots organisations finally established a common protocol for the new 'silent messaging service', allowing the technologies to flourish.