Touching the surface

By Vincent Meelberg

Touch might be the most important sense we
human beings have. Touch puts us in direct, constant contact with the outside
world. And perhaps that might be the reason why this sense is so problematic.
Touch implies intimacy and closeness, and these are phenomena that the
(Western) world finds increasingly difficult to cope with. On the one hand, we
are no longer sure when it is appropriate to touch someone. On
the other hand, however, the temptation to touch is always present. This is one
of the reasons why New York City Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Chair of the Task
Force on Women’s Issues Aravella Simotas
recently announced the passage of
 to assure that a sentence of up to one year of
imprisonment may be imposed for a person “who makes inappropriate physical contact with
another person while traveling on a mode of public transportation.” Apparently people are so eager to touch others, even without consent, that they need a law to hold them back.

Yet, as many studies have shown, physical contact between human beings – provided it is mutually agreed upon – is vital. Physical contact and reassurance will make
people more secure and better able to form relationships. David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor at
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of Touch: The
Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind
adds during an interview in The Atlantic: “More
than anything else, what touch conveys is ‘I’m an ally, I’m not a threat.
Touch puts the recipient in a trusting mental state, and anything you can do to
encourage the student to trust the teacher is going to make learning
better.“ And let’s face it: it is often simply very enjoyable to be
touched and to touch someone else.


Interestingly, the way we interact with
non-human entities is increasingly through direct touch as well. Until a few
years ago the way we interacted with phones and computers was by pushing
buttons. And while pushing implies touching too, this interaction remained very
indirect. One never really had the sensation of literally touching the
information that was being manipulated by the touching of buttons. All this
changed with the introduction of the iPhone. One of the reasons this device became such a huge
success was its user interface. Instead of trying to hit the correct tiny
physical buttons in order to write an email, for instance, suddenly the user
could type directly on the screen and had the possibility to literally touch
the Internet via multi-touch. It indeed was a magical experience, as Steve Jobs
liked to stress over and over again.


Nowadays, most phones use multi-touch, and
tablets such as the iPad could not have existed without this technology. So,
what does the fact that we have no problem touching the surface of our devices,
but are very reluctant to touch another person, say about Western society? Have
we arrived at a stage where we are more comfortable
being intimate with our phones than with human beings? When we take into
account that we use these devices to communicate with other people and that
direct personal contact is gradually being superseded by these mediated forms
of communication, the pessimistic conclusion might be that direct interpersonal
relations are indeed becoming increasingly rare, and therefore touching someone
may become the exception rather than the rule.


I think I need a hug…

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