The subscriber can’t be reached

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“Texters” and “texting” are relatively new additions to the English language, and it’s Filipinos who seem to have contributed both. At least they’re newer than that exquisitely ironic term from the martial law period, “salvaging”. “Salvaging” has long found its way into the vocabulary of some foreign writers, among them the Canadian fictionist Margaret Atwood, whose novel The Handmaid’s Tale uses the word as the Philippine military and most Filipinos understand it.

As late as 2000, when Joseph Estrada was still president and only about to be ousted from office, the New York Times’ Wayne Arnold had noted how Filipinos had added a new verb to the English language—or at least to the variety of it common in these parts.

Arnold’s “Manila’s Talk of the Town is Text Messaging” quoted a Filipino army general as saying that “Our soldiers are texting insults to the MILF. And the MILF are sending the insults back,” to which Arnold responded, “ ‘Texting’? Yes, texting—as in exchanging short typed messages over a cell phone.”

“All over the Philippines,” Arnold went on, “a verb has been born, and Filipinos use it whether they are speaking English or Tagalog.”

Arnold arrived at the same observation, since then made by academics (with their “techne” and “being-in-the- world” explanations of the cell phone’s impact on social relations), that the cell phone, thanks partly to the introduction of prepaid cards in 1999, has created its own subculture in the Philippines, “complete with vocabulary, etiquette and tactical uses.”

In 2001 that culture was apparently binding enough among a broad band of users for mobile phone communication to be partly instrumental in ousting Estrada. Young adults and teen-agers were so successful in texting friends and relatives and other networks to come to the EDSA shrine that they constituted well over 50 percent of the one million-strong throng. Of course TV and print—the “old media”—also had something to do with it. But the Estrada ouster marked the first time that the cell phone demonstrated its power as a political tool.

With millions of Filipinos texting daily and text messages running into the tens of millions, the Philippines has since been named Texting Capital of the World, which has meant not only super profits for the service providers who have been charging for text messaging since 2000, but also the making of one more vehicle for political as well as commercial advertising.

But there’s another sense in which cell phones and cell phone use have become political. Afraid of another EDSA uprising helped along by untrammeled text messaging, and aware that various anti-government groups including the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front use cell phones to communicate with, among others, the mass media, the Arroyo government seems committed to SIM registration, despite what we’re told are horrendous technical difficulties. Regime intelligence agencies have also developed sophisticated means of tracking –and, as the “Hello Garci” scandal showed, tapping–cell phone calls and text messages.

The regime has also proposed a tax on text in the past, which cell phone consumer networks opposed. But the Department of Transportation and Communication recently petitioned the National Telecommunications Commission to compel the telcos (telecommunication firms) to make text messaging free. The cell phone users’ advocacy group, TXTPower, responded by saying it welcomes the DOTC initiative, but expressed surprise at the “sudden turn around of the DOTC secretary and members of Congress.”

TXTPower said it has long advocated free text messaging, since it is a “built-in service of the GSM standard used by telcos,” while the government had long resisted it. But the DOTC flip flop is easily explained in political terms. The biggest telcos are perceived to be less than friendly to the regime, and compelling them to provide text messaging services for free would not only be popular; it could also teach their owners a thing or two about the wisdom of being a bit more supportive.

What do the millions of Filipinos who own cell phones and who wouldn’t be caught dead without them think about this? They couldn’t care less about the politics of it, although they probably should. They’re too busy texting such hair- raising examples of English as it shouldn’t be written as “W8 4 me. CU,” and even “I luv u”—all quite annoying and even offensive to those of us who spent years reading James Joyce and Katherine Ann Porter to gain some mastery of the language we write in.

Never mind. As we’ve been told so often, the mobile phone can be empowering. It arms even those who have nothing to say with the means to say it. For those whose lips would have been forever sealed by bad education and low economic status, it’s heaven sent for prying those lips open and loosening that tongue. That’s why one of the telcos had the gall to threaten to cut text messaging services if it can no longer charge for it: the cell phone has created a need, and the need can’t be met without text messaging.

Rejoice the texters of the Text Capital of the World should that at least one item in their budgets could be eliminated by enabling them to send text messages for free, courtesy of Globe, Smart, Sun, the DOTC, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s war with certain unfriendly corporations. But let’s remember as we punch those keys that the new communication technologies aren’t always the gift their advocates claim them to be.

“Texting” defies conveying anything more complex than informing Mom when one’s coming home, which is why its most common use is to express the most banal sentiments. There’s more than one meaning to the message that “the subscriber can’t be reached”; as far as communication goes, paper’s better, face-to-face best. I’m sorely tempted to fling my mobile phone into the nearest estero.

(BusinessWorld)

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