Words by Diego McCafferty
Illustration by Sarah Schmidt
On average, people aged 18-24 send and receive about 42 text messages on any given day, making it a primary form of communication. A major preoccupation can be the inherent cost of a media storage plan as it pertains to your current mobile contract, the content of the message and its recipients (possibly in that order).
But there is a larger cultural impact to the constant hum of information we’re now all accountable for. “You become responsible for what you have tamed,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, before realizing how many lives it would ruin.
– – – –
It’s a Thursday night in a little town 40 minutes Northeast of Texarkana. A man, aged 22, is pacing back and forth outside a three-bedroom apartment he shares with two roommates, restlessly smoking. In between drags, he rubs at the back of freshly cropped hair, and after debating whether to look or not, pulls out his cellphone to rummage through the texts. He’d been putting off responding to the last, and promised himself a cigarette to both sort out what he’d write back and allow enough time to pass so as not to seem desperate. Or giddy.
He punches in his response and takes a beat before hitting send. It’s terse, but loaded. Weighty. The kind of brave sentiment that exists only because Information Fatigue has turned remotely substantive messages into bold, mawkish leaps. That’s what she’d always liked about him anyway.
He flicks at SEND, and immediately silences his phone, puts the screen to sleep, and sticks it in the back pocket of his jeans. He inhales deeply the crisp night air, and assured that no one can see him, sticks both his fists up in the air before bringing his hands down over his eyes and letting out a sigh.
He heads back inside. He’d written simply, “I’ll go if you go”.
– – – –
First, your phone converts your message (capped out at 160 characters by utilizing unused space on pre-existing mobile protocols) into a 7-bit alphabet, capable of expressing all latin letters, numbers, common punctuation, and both the capital and lowercase versions of the “æ” diphthong. This encoded message is transmitted by the radio in your handset to the nearest cell tower which is capable of distinguishing it from a the signal of a standard phone call, and redirects it toward the tower closest to the intended recipient.
In a matter of seconds, your message can travel hundreds of miles. Like all electromagnetic signals, radio waves travel at the speed of light. Almost all are reflected by the ionosphere, a layer of our atmosphere where the Sun’s rays have their electrons scattered, and either sent back to Earth or absorbed there. But is it theoretically possible that a radio wave of say 800-900 MHz (depending on the frequency one’s carrier uses) could bleed out? If, say, a signal was sent after sunset, when the D layer responsible for absorbing radio signals was just a figurative shadow of itself? If sent at just the right time, at just the right frequency, under perfect circumstances?
Theoretically: sure. Sure it is.
And once liberated of its gossamer-thin Terrestrial confinement, that’s when the signal becomes as free and unstoppable as an irresponsible premise.
– – – –
After 2 hours without a response, he graduates from video-games to grain-based alcohol as his primary mode of distraction. It works, sort of.
– – – –
Two hours after escaping orbit from the Earth’s atmosphere, the text message will have travelled over 2 billion kilometers, nearly half the distance between the Earth’s current location and Neptune, the most outward lying planet in our Solar System [note: at the time of this article’s writing, Neptune is just over 30 AU away, or 30.24 times further away than the distance from the Sun to our planet]. To give some perspective, the time elapsed between John F. Kennedy promising to put an American on the Moon and an American actually/allegedly landing on the Moon was just shy of 8 years and 2 months.
In 1977, NASA launched two unmanned probes as part of the Voyager Program, a mission designed to take advantage of favorable planetary alignment. The Voyager 1 probe is the furthest a man-made object has been from its place of origin, nearly at the limit of the Solar System and into interstellar space. In regards to a photograph of Earth taken from Voyager 1, Carl Sagan has written:
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
The text message will have surpassed the distance of Voyager 1 in less than 17 and a half hours.
– – – –
Thirty-odd years have passed by, and he rarely thinks about her anymore. She had gotten back to him eventually, of course. The next morning she responded with a smiley emoticon and a dismissive joke, and sank his heart. It hadn’t been the first time and he quickly recoiled, too calloused and hardened to go through the whole tired process, with her, again. And so he moved on.
There were other loves. In fact, loves that burned more brightly and truer than what the two of them had experienced. Chalk it up to bad luck or bad temperament, but he was never able to make any of them last for more than a couple years.
But he is contented. He eventually left his hometown and, on a whim, moved to the midwest and fell for it with more fervor than he could ever feel for a person. He has a truck, and a dog, and decent business framing drywall. He has his seat at his bar, and if he puts it to himself, very little to complain about. He rarely thinks about her, but when he does it’s with a smile, and then a soft, wry chuckle.
She, ironically, genuinely had had strong feelings for him, but had just been exceptionally busy. After her initial attempts to rectify being unavailable the night were met with the vitriol and blind pathology of someone determined to be righteously indignant, she made the logical decision to get on her with her life and never look back.
In the decades to come, a passing interest in her ethnological roots (and a proclivity for politics) lead to her being declared Queen Regent in Absentia of St. Croix in its bloody attempt at revolutionary independence. Her name is still whispered and worshipped by the Cruzan children of Olde Chrstiansted. A warning to outsiders, a pledge of revenge and violence to those that would forget her work:
The red spider will come for you
She loves her island children
She eats birds, she eats frogs
She’ll wait through the night to protect us*
*sung in French
But that’s neither here nor there.
– – – –
After escaping the Solar System, the text message will continue its march across the galaxy. Propagating out as a waveform as it encompasses a larger space, the inverse square law states that its signal will degrade. After only a couple hundred light-years, it will be virtually indistinguishable from background radiation. But in that 200 light years, it will have touched nearly 260,000 stars, each with dozens of planetoids. It will spread literally to millions of other worlds, and regardless of its strength, the signal will be there. A distant hum, barely noticeable. The Muzak to possibly trillions of alien life forms, always in the background. A notion in the back of histories upon histories upon histories.
“I’ll go if you go.”
– – – –
Back on Earth (and in the Solar System), the Sun will continue to expand. After a billion or so years, all water will have boiled off the Earth’s surface, and life will be unsustainable. The Sun will have grown from the Yellow Dwarf star we’re all familiar with to a Red Giant in another couple billion years and then eventually to a White Dwarf after 12.4 billion years. The Solar System will be an empty husk, desolate and hazardous to all neighboring galactic clusters. What little poetry might be left, that the remaining matter on Earth could be sucked into a star that has gone supernova and formed a black hole, only to emerge as a new star comprised of what once was her, and what was him, is statistically impossible. They were never the product of celestial divinity, and science won’t fix that now. Instead, they’re left to wait out the hundreds of billions of years, until the end of the Universe, beyond which not even romance can reach.
– – – –
The text message, however, proves more difficult to dissuade. Billions upon billions of light years away, a form of sentient consciousness exists. Xe (for it is a xe) is an energy beyond comprehension, the subtle nuances of which would shatter the mind and blister the fabric of space/time. And as it happens, xis favorite hobby is to trawl through subspace, picking up signals lost to the capricious whims of the Universe. Xe finds the text message, and xit understands. Xit feels it, man…
Xe adds it to a xixtape xe’s been putting together called “Deep Grooves” for Xennifer. Xe’s just been waiting for the right something to put it all together… to let Xennifer know how xe really feels about xer.
The text message speaks to xim. Xe thinks xe gets it on a level no xone else does.
Xe’s an idiot, and wrong. And pedantic. And Xennifer is way more into Justin, anyway.
– – – –
And the message moves on infinitely to nothing, or as far as anyone can know, to complete entropy. Where all our messages go, from heartache to sports scores. Infinite and alone and complete, forever.
Like every other thing put out. Like everything. ◥