High-tech hearts: how romance drives innovation

I've recently discovered the joys of SMS (short message service) -- a somewhat clunky but ultimately practical way of sending brief text messages from one mobile phone to another.

I first started using the feature not for any deeply meaningful communication, or for professional reasons, but for the simple fact that I was newly romantically involved, and on the road for work.

In point of fact, I was sending sweet nothings over the airwaves.

Turns out I'm in good company. SMS is wildly popular among European youth, who can be observed giggling over their ubiquitous keypads on buses and trains, in cafés and discos across the continent. And you can bet they're not exchanging stock tips.

There's no question that SMS is handy for discreet communications of the R-rated sort. You can peck out a quick "thinking of you" message in the middle of a meeting, and no one is the wiser. It helps fan the romantic flames when you can't be there in person.

A UK company specialising in software for wireless devices even surveyed the sexy SMS practices of Europeans this month, and stated, among other eyebrow-raising statistics, that "six per cent of respondents have conducted text message conversations with other people, whilst engaged in sexual acts with a lover" and that "more than half of those interviewed claim to regularly use text messaging to lie and help cheat on their partners."

(How many people lie and cheat on market research surveys is another question, but let's not go there).

The role of e-mail in today's amorous adventures is no longer news, and was even the subject of another somewhat dubious study recently. German linguists analysed e-mail exchanges between couples, and determined that online lovers use language as free as that uttered in face-to-face romantic exchanges, unlike the more reserved prose found in traditional love letters. (No doubt the lovers would have exercised more restraint if they'd known their open hearts would be dissected in the language lab).

In recent days, the UK press has been consumed with the tale of an e-mail flirt run amok. Two office workers apparently traded spicy messages that began in an exchange of smutty jokes. One Clare Swire, no doubt to her eternal regret, shared with a certain Bradley Chait that "yours was yum" (context excluded here for the sake of what shred of decency remains). The said Chait, in a fit of perhaps characteristic male bravado, shared same e-mail with his mates, who unfortunately forwarded the exchange until it ultimately became the property of the masses. At last report, Swire was in hiding from the notoriously ruthless London tabloids.

These anecdotes serve to remind us that e-mail is forever, as Monica Lewinsky famously discovered to her chagrin.

But no doubt people will continue to throw caution to the wind and flirt via SMS, e-mail, or other new media. Remember that "cyber-sex" was a trend that brought millions of newcomers to the Internet, and that pornography was one of the first commercially successful e-commerce applications. In other words, people follow their hearts -- or perhaps other organs -- onto new and uncharted technological turf.

What I'm getting to with all this is that technology is most successful when it helps meet basic human, umm, urges. Which helps explain why Napster has been a runaway success, while online clothing merchants have lost their shirts. (Musical instant gratification? Right on! Order clothes you can't try on? Forget it). The majority of people don't naturally flock to new innovations -- not everyone is an "early adopter." The secret to the "killer app" is to help people live more human lives in an increasingly complicated world.

Build a better mousetrap, or rather a better Valentine, and they will come.

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Rick Perera

PC World

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