Reach Out And Touch Something

Copyright © by Len Holman, 1/9/11


  The “in” technological item isn’t any particular machine, it’s a behavior: touching, and it’s supposed to make computers, phones—every gadget we use, with many more to come—more open to “natural” human gestures.  “Natural” is what the CEOs and other techno-geeks call the newest in user interfaces.  Of course, it isn’t all that new, just used in a different way, and called new, especially by the folks who want to sell us their latest device.  We have been conned, again, by our own desires and the more we want the new stuff, the more new stuff is produced, so that we want even more.  It’s a consumerist cycle the Buddha would completely understand.  He would shake his head at the futility of it all, but he would understand it.  So, it’s official.  Technology isn’t dehumanizing any more, say the experts—now that we can zoom and flip and navigate pages with our fingers.  The New York Times quotes a scientist at Microsoft as saying that touching our electronic toys is “…part of the general trajectory we’re on in the computing industry—this whole notion of making computers more open to natural human gestures and intentions.”  For people of a certain age, the “natural” gesture and intention when trying to use the so-called “user-friendly” machines is to throw the damn thing across the room in disgust and frustration.

  Anthropologists might argue that a natural human intention is to mate, to create progeny and to pass on the genes to the next generation (well, when you’re mating, perhaps passing genes isn’t at the forefront of your mind). Touching is certainly a part of this, but “feeling” is probably more correct, and THAT is natural.  One doesn’t caress an iPhone so much as wrestle with it, flicking, spreading fingers, running those fingers across the screen in a pantomime of turning pages, turning the device the proper way—and I guess this mimics the old feeling and manipulating our ancestors did to get US here, but it certainly isn’t new.  What IS new the claim that this is a new human practice.  What is meant by this is that all the previous toys people bought were so UNhuman, that this latest batch of stuff is less alienating and a little more human-friendly.  And it also means that we’ve given up on making stuff people can use, that people really NEED, and that people feel comfortable with.  Let’s take a few examples.  Automobiles use to have radios with dials.  You reached out and turned a dial to get a station or to adjust the volume, find a station, or tune in a station to its best reception.  You had to be delicate; no waving or flicking or manipulation of the fingers from a distance would get you a static-free program.  It took the soft and sensitive touch of a Jimmy Valentine breaking into a safe to get it right.  Now you push something—a bar or some other design feature put in just to give the consumer the idea that the car is a forward progress in design and manufacture.  And those mouthy GPS things that every vehicle has now are not fit outside of a populated city or an established highway.  Out where I live, the only people who can find me are the UPS guy and my wife—too many dirt roads with no signs, and not one of the Thomas Brothers has been out to re-write his map.  The so-called “new” ways to navigate these devices ARE new—to these devices, but NOT new to humans, who have been reaching out to touch since the invention of fingers.  It’s not as if humans used to throw rocks with their feet until some village elder said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea:  let’s try throwing with our hands!”  And very soon thereafter, the villagers went wild with glee, calling the new way of throwing rocks the cutting edge of a new technology.  We, as a species, have been touching, fondling, gripping, fingering, and palming for hundreds of thousands of years.  Next, expect another expert to come out of the paleo-archaeological woodwork to declare that touching is what Homo sapiens did that Neanderthals didn’t do, and that led to the poor brutes’ extinction.

  Voice-activation is the next step and is now already in limited use, and we are promised such wonderful productivity from using our voices to control our machines that it’s hard to see what could possibly be next, except thought-activated devices.  Do we really need to THINK, “I need to call my mistress”?  Human thought is so jumbled and stream-of-consciousness that I wouldn’t trust 99.9% of people on the freeway driving their cars by thought alone not to slam into me at 70 miles per hour.  What will the voice-driven car say then?  “Oops?”

  The really pernicious thing isn’t some new marketing ploy—some “create a need, then fill it” strategy, but the fact that it works almost every time, that so very few say, “No, thanks, I just want a phone that makes and receives calls.”  Or, “No thanks, I don’t need a car that talks.”  Or even, “No, thanks, I don’t want to live in a universe where Steve Jobs is God.”  If it’s new, then it must be worthwhile and we must have it.  It’s more than keeping up with the Joneses.  It’s more than not wanting to be perceived as a Luddite.  It’s a lack of understanding about the basics of being a human and living a richer, fuller life.  Philosophers, religious and spiritual leaders, and other parties interested in the human condition have been thinking about this for thousands of years.  These people have found a sense of purpose and satisfaction in their various beliefs and systems, and have lived lives in which LIFE is paramount, not stuff.  Of course they all lived in a quieter world, an emptier world, a world in which there was time and space to think about the best life to lead.  Today, we are pushed, shouted at, and have every factoid—no matter how unimportant, no matter how stupid—shoved in our faces.  We do not think or consider or stop to smell, feel or consider the roses.  We consume indiscriminately, impulsively, and are urged to do so by the very structure of our economic and political systems, including every politician in this economy who wants us to know that if we could only just scrape up our last remaining dollars, forget buying the dog food and paying Grandma’s nursing care, and go out and buy a TV that covers an entire wall of your rented apartment, the American Dream will live—otherwise, we are in for dark times, in a dismal world in which Chinese children do math and science better than our children do…wait, that’s already true.  We’ll live in a dismal world where we don’t make stuff like light bulbs anymore…wait, that’s already happened, too.  Well, anyway, it’ll be a dismal world.  So we need the toys to keep America afloat.  And those old philosophers?  Well, that was then, and all that speculating and hand-wringing about The Good Life can’t touch us anymore.


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