Sunday, July 10, 2016

Losing One’s Touch For Touching

            The human sense of touch seems to be under ongoing attack by modern technological innovation.  In some cases, the experience of touching stimuli is reduced as in swiping one’s fingers over or typing on smartphones to perform all kinds of tasks and searches that used to be handled in direct contact with the external world and with books and with magazines.  This use of the smartphone supposedly reduces the exertion of physical and mental effort.  In other cases, touch is eliminated entirely.  Lights turn on when we walk into rooms, particularly public bathrooms, and turn off when we leave them.  This has the purpose of reducing the amount of energy used by making sure that lights are only on when rooms are occupied by people.  Faucets in bathrooms turn on and off as hands approach and then retreat from them.  Here water is saved as a result of preventing people from accidentally leaving faucets turned on.  Finally, toilets flush by themselves.  Ostensively, this is to prevent toilets from continuing to hold waste products left from the people who use the toilets.  In the case of all the devices in the bathroom – lights, faucets and toilets – not having to touch things can be considered to be more sanitary.  And again there is the reduction in the exertion of physical effort.

            Nevertheless, this use of smartphones and sensor technology represents the breaking down of tactile connection with the external world.  More and more, people are being put into a tactile vacuum which becomes an integral part of the total experiential vacuum in which they are immersed while living in modern technological society.  And this of course contributes to the behavior distortion that has been talked about in this column.  There is the conative acceleration, the speeding up of the will, where people try to bust out of a sense of numbness through relentless work, hard fun (kicks) and violence.  This speeded up activity creates increased friction which helps a person to feel alive.  Then there is conative anesthesia where a person tries to withdraw into himself and create his own world of numbness that he can control and manipulate to reduce the harmful effects of a more global numbness from the external world.  Here you have everything from marijuana to meditation to Eastern religion – Western style.

            Both of these behavioral postures can be used (sometimes by the same person) in response to the increasing numbness we feel, as modern technology increasingly separates us from our tactile field of experience.  In an article Gizmag, “Microsoft Research anticipates the future with pre-sensing touchscreen prototype”, we learn that Microsoft has created a technology where the way you hover over a screen with your fingers determines the creation of menus on your screen as well as options for interaction in order to control and manipulate your screen content.  The same can be said for the way you grip a smartphone and with one or both hands. Once you bring up menus or options, you can touch your fingers to the screen as you would normally do to type on or swipe the screen.

            This new hovering aspect of smartphone usage is extremely concerning, because it represents one more level where one’s tactile connection to the external world is mediated by technology.  We have progressed from carving out messages on rock to writing first on papyrus and then on paper, to typing on paper, to typing on a computer, to typing on and swiping a smartphone, to organizing data on a smartphone without touching any physical object.

            And using the way we grip a device to bring up menus means that we are using gross motor actions rather than the fine motor actions of writing or typing or swiping with fingers to control written material.  Gripping can’t possibly provide the same fine-tuned control that these fine motor activities can.  But it obviously seems smooth and comfortable to Microsoft and reduces physical activity with the fingers.  Heaven only knows we mustn’t strain our fingers with too much physical activity.

            We come again to a major overarching purpose of modern technological innovation: get rid of friction.  Breaking down the reasons for this purpose, it can be said that friction creates frustration which threatens one’s sense of empowerment.  Except that, in reality, some friction helps a person feel alive, and a person can’t feel empowered in his life if he feels numb.  Furthermore, unless a person has some obstacles as demonstrated by the friction, he can’t put into practice his sense of empowerment and thus feel for himself, know for himself that he is empowered.

            Also friction creates a sense of general discomfort.  Particularly as a person becomes accustomed to the numbing effects of modern technology, it takes less and less friction to make a person feel uncomfortable.  Except that it is precisely this discomfort from relatively small sources of friction that should act as a danger sign that people are losing an important aspect of their humanity – the ability to engage the external world, and transform it; the ability to make and preserve imprints and feel fully alive in the process, and the ability to prepare for death through the surrogate immortality of these preserved imprints.

            Connected with this sense of general discomfort is a sense that somehow friction, in and of itself, creates a sense of disorder, both within one’s mind and in the external world.  It is true that in the process of trying to transform the world both in ways small and large, breakdowns and disorders occur in our field of experience.  But in changing the world, in recreating the world, there has to be a certain amount of messy creative destruction.  As they say, it goes with the territory.

            For many of us who increasingly can’t tolerate friction, we just sink deeper and deeper into conative anesthesia.  In our numbness, we become intolerant within ourselves of anything that does not represent the most mediated of life narratives – a life narrative mediated by technology.

            It may seem farfetched to impute such a significant influence on human behavior to the technological device that is the subject of this article: the pre-sensing touchscreen.  But the pre-sensing touchscreen is just one of many modern technological devices that are contributing or will contribute to increasing layers of mediation in our field of experience and to the increasing numbness that accompanies this mediation.  All these increasing layers of mediation are making it more and more difficult to get the organic stimulation that humans need to feel alive as fully actualized human beings so that they don’t sink into the living death of robots.  We are becoming what we use.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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