The kinds of things we touch today are considerably different from the kinds of things people touched before the coming of modern technology. In more traditional times, the natural environment was a more integral part of people’s lives, and people’s hands, bodies and feet were constantly coming into contact with organic textures. When people weren’t walking barefoot directly on the ground, their foot coverings like sandals and shoes were usually made out of animal skins and leather. There were exceptions as with the wooden shoes of the Dutch. But in general, humans, when they wore feet coverings, used materials that breathed and that provided a variety of organic sensations. The same holds true for their clothing and, when appropriate, their hats and their gloves. The flowing blendable continual stimuli that were the foundation of the organic sensations that humans experienced with their clothing helped them to feel more fully alive. Without the use of modern technology to refine the materials, the materials used were often more coarse and rough than people today are used to. People obviously lived with these materials, because they had nothing else to which to compare them. Coarse wool and animal skins. Sometimes fur was used as lining. In the tropics, garments could be made out of leaves and leaf fibers. These were the materials that a lot of people had. Cotton was a luxury for many people initially. And before modern technology, people didn’t have plastic shoes and polyester clothing, items that didn’t breathe and that didn’t provide organic sensation.
In the external world, people walked on dirt or cobblestone roads and wooden and fiber rope bridges. They lived in animal skin tepees, igloos, mud huts, log cabins, textured stucco homes, wooden houses, elaborate stone castles. They rode animals and felt the animals bump against them as the animals walked, trotted or galloped along. People used implements made of stone, wood, bone, horn, or shell. And they created all kinds of textured products that were interesting to touch: pottery, masks, bows and arrows, spears, baskets, jewelry, musical instruments that had to be plucked or hit against. And wooden furniture and plates. Knives, spoons and forks and other metal implements were developed as metallurgy developed. And rope, hemp, and leather thongs were used as the organic connections to tie things together.
I know that I am blurring together different cultures and different historical stages prior to the impact of modern technology, but what these different cultures and stages had in common was the great variety of organic tactile sensations available for people to experience. What can be said about these diverse tactile sensations is that they are verbally difficult to describe. This can also be said for sensations of smell and taste where many different kinds of flowing blendable continual stimuli blur together to form a particular sensation or a particular group of sensations. They are more immediate sensations where the sources of stimuli come close to us or even inside us. This is distinct from the more mediated sensations of hearing and vision where the sources of stimuli can be at a greater distance from us. Because the sources of hearing and vision stimuli can be more apart from us, we can distinguish and identify them more easily with defined discrete labels. On the other hand, touch particularly creates so many unfocused flowing blendable continual sensations, that it is difficult to effectively label them verbally.
However, it must be said that, in the modern world, in which the configuration of stimuli in our modern field of experience is composed of so many defined discrete stimuli from modern technology and what it fabricates, it is much easier to find words to define the more simplified tactile sensations that it produces. Of course, the opportunity to experience many tactile stimuli has been taken away from us as a result of modern technology. Because of sensors, all sorts of mechanical processes occur with no touching at all. Doors open in department stores as we approach them. Faucets turn on when our hands approach them. Toilets flush by themselves. And then there are the processes that require the minimal touching of pressing a button or buttons. Press some buttons and get a car washed or an individual cup of coffee. Press more buttons and turn on a television to a desired station. Press a button and turn on an air conditioner. Button touches are defined discrete stimuli that have none of the interesting texture of more organic surfaces that are full of flowing blendable continual stimuli.
Then there are the screen swipes that are an integral part of the interaction of humans with smartphones and tablets. Again one is dealing with cold hard smooth textureless surfaces that don’t breath and don’t commune with the human user of the consumer device. There is no give in a smartphone or tablet surface, no cushion, no grounding for the fingers of the human user. One slides over the plastic screen and receives a minimum of tactile stimulation. Now by sliding over the plastic screen, one does generate a kind of two-dimensional flowing blendable continual stimulation from the pressure of the movement of the fingers, but this is only a pressure stimulation. This is done over a cold hard smooth surface which maintains very strong figure boundaries, so the flowing, blendable continual stimuli from the swipe don’t generate any bonding with the plastic screen or the device upon which the fingers pass over. These smartphones and tablets are devices upon which many of today’s humans spend hours on end. These are the phenomena in the world which many of today’s humans touch the most. Passing fingers on a cold hard smooth ungiving surface is a metaphor for being behind a clear wall, and on the other side of the wall there seems to be life which one can’t really touch.
But at least with a plastic screen, one is touching something. When one deals with sensor devices, one ends up touching nothing. One is in a tactile experiential vacuum that contributes to making a person feel numb. Numb and incapable of leaving a tactile organic imprint on some experiential surface in the world. Not only do these sensor devices make one feel numb at the moment and unable to leave organic imprints at the moment, but they contribute to an ongoing numbness and incapacity to leave organic imprints even when organic surfaces should present themselves. To a kind of generalized psychic impotence that contributes to reactions like the desperate murderous rage of certain young men that has been discussed in a previous article.
Another tactile phenomenon in the modern world is the attempt to imitate organic sensation through technology. I am talking about the chairs, beds, and other machines that give massages and, of course, vibrators. Disconnected from their organic bonds with other people, so many humans today have to rely on machines to give them intimate organic sensations both of nurturance and excitement. But machines are limited to doing what machines can do. They display a predictable discrete rhythm of stimulation that makes human response predictably mechanical as well. None of the great variation in human hand movement or human bodily movement is available in these devices. We gradually and subtly become programmed to the focused defined discrete pattern and rhythm of movement and touch in these devices, and even as we attain different degrees of tactile satisfaction from them, we become as robotically predictable in our consumer responses as the devices are mechanically predictable in their methods of stimulation. The hybrid mechanical organic stimulation that is produced leads to hybrid mechanical organic people. But as these devices represent among the few sources of even quasi-organic stimulation around, people flock to them as though they were sources of sensory enlightenment.
One final areas has to be touched (no pun intended) and that is what our feet feel today. In the old days, people used to feel the pressure of their feet sinking into the ground a little, every time they took a step on dirt paths and floors. They would actually feel the dirt through their toes if they walked barefoot. Furthermore, they would feel either directly the touch or indirectly the pressure when they walked on pebbles and stones and grass and branches as they passed through forests and fields. They would feel directly or indirectly the uneven surfaces of cobblestone, when they walked on cobblestone roads. In short, there used to be a great deal of sensory variety for the feet.
Today, people primarily walk on the smooth, even, ungiving surfaces of concrete and asphalt. It is basically a frictionless sensory vacuum that does not leave a person feeling bonded with or grounded in the world. One could just as easily walk off the surface of the world.
In terms of floors, dirt floors, for all their imperfections, certainly led a person to feel grounded in the floor. Wood floors are smooth, but they give a little, they breathe, and they creak when one walks on them. Carpeting and rugs, of course, provide a great deal of texture and give. But more public buildings have concrete, tile or marble floors – smooth, cold and ungiving.
For the most part, organic tactile sensation is very scarce today compared to the past. And as has also been pointed out in previous articles, sex has become practically the only reliable source for organic tactile sensation in modern technological society. With the lack of organic tactile sensation in their fields of experience, it is no wonder that so many people today seem to unconsciously look at serial sexual relationships as the only possible solution for organic sensory variety. But even serial sex cannot really substitute for the global variety of tactile stimulation that existed before modern technological society. It becomes a challenge in today’s world to find even some of the variety of organic tactile stimulation that we used to have and that we truly need to keep us human.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow