Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Losing Touch

We're losing something. We're losing reality in its most concrete sense.

Scott Warnock, a friend and colleague of mine at When Falls the Coliseum recently wrote an article about the ways in which technology drives us crazy, "byte by byte." Much of what he referenced came down to things going wonky beyond our control: computers pooping out for no reason or bills that mysteriously gain charges because of automated glitches.That sort of thing. But as I read his article, I got to thinking about the physical side of what he addressed in terms of remote interactions.

I've written before about books versus e-readers. I've made it clear that, although I am a techno-savvy person -- someone who loves what technology can do for us -- I draw the line at books. I will never own a Kindle or anything like it. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important one is that I like to hold books in my hands. I like to turn pages.

"Room in New York," by Edward Hopper
Touch and texture are fading farther away from daily interaction and the change in the delivery of literature is a good example of this.

For instance, not so long ago, books had rough-cut pages. They had leather covers with raised patterns. After some time, machines started producing books by the thousands and and tens-of-thousands and the covers became cardboard and the pages were neatly cut, smooth and perfect. Now we slide our fingertips across a cold screen to turn "virtual" pages.

Science fiction writers and film producers have given us visions of the future in which all has gotten cold and metallic. Fabrics are smooth; wood has given way to plastic and metal and cotton and wool have been replaced by synthetics in the future worlds that are shown to us on the screen.

But is that all unlikely? I don't think so.

Look at your iPhone. No buttons. Nothing to push. I mean, you're not fooled by that little glow around the numbers as you "touch" them, are you? You don't think that "click" is produced by friction and something snapping into place, do you?

Our toes once spent their days in the cool dirt and they used adjust and grasp at roots and at changes in the terrain as we walked. Before long, we put leather between us and the ground. For centuries we have walked through life never closer that an eighth of an inch away from the Earth.

I don't want to fall into slippery slope argument, but what will happen to humans as a species if everything keeps getting flat and glassy and "virtual"? What happens when there are no more buttons to push or textures to feel or pages to turn or surfaces on which to scrape knees?

What happens when all of the people in the world become terrified of touching each other?

Oh, wait . . .


  1. "Our toes once spent their days in the cool dirt and they used adjust and grasp at roots and at changes in the terrain as we walked. Before long, we put leather between us and the ground."

    Indeed, and between us and the snow, us and the rocks, us and the hookworms. At about 14, walking barefoot in the side yard, I got a thorn in the foot; a bit stayed behind for a physician to remove the next week. I'd have happily enough spared my moment of Earthen intimacy then.

  2. The funny thing is, touch and texture (and even reading quietly to oneself) are, in the grand scheme of things, recent innovations in the reception of stories. For much of human history, people simply sat and listened.

    That said, I suspect the future will not be bereft of natural forms, tactile sensations, or calloused surfaces. There's always cultural pushback; even in the iPhone era, people are gardening and knitting, buying and selling handmade goods on Etsy, and so forth, just as industrialization prompted, among other things, the Arts and Crafts movement. As a species, we're drawn to clean lines and smooth edges, but I think we always fall back into dirt and uncertainty and things that feel rough in our hands.

  3. Papi -- I thank you.

    George -- Ah, but your ancestral fourteen-year-old counterpart would have had toughened feet as a result of his closeness with the Earth. Perhpas he wouldn't have fallen victim to the thorn, as a result.

    I hope you're right, Jeff.