Tactility and Care
In ‘A Sand County Almanac’, author, philosopher and ecologist Aldo Leopold writes: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from a furnace.”  We have long surpassed succumbing to these dangers. However, the spiritual danger of our times is not that we assume that the smartphone comes from Amazon delivery or the store – it’s that we do not assume it comes from anywhere, because we are not engaged with the materials or the object-ness of it. We do not think about the human labor, material resources and data that produced it.
As the world has become more global and interconnected with the aid of technology, it has also become more opaque and fragmented. We are constantly surrounded by technological objects. They form a network of interconnections commonly referred to as an ‘internet of things’, or ‘ubiquitous computing’. The aim of ubiquitous computing is to become so deeply embedded into our everyday lives that we do not notice that it’s there – making it seem magical. This magic conceals the materialities and mechanisms of objects. What are the consequences of not noticing or engaging with these materials that we use and interact with?
Technological objects are typically screen-based and cuboid shaped, skins and casings on top of unintelligible technologies. These objects are advertised as sleek and efficient – qualities that we are conditioned to want in our devices. They do not make what they are encasing, visually or materially comprehensible in terms of their form or function.
Crawford and Joler in ‘Anatomy of an AI’ have beautifully illustrated the complexity, intensity, and scale of the infrastructures that sustain a quintessential smart technological object: The Amazon Echo. They highlight how ultra-convenience for the privileged requires a massive network of resources to produce. “Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch.”  These infrastructures and systems are deeply intertwined, making it almost impossible to unravel and fully comprehend, even if we wanted to. However, the appearance and materiality of technological devices, devoid of texture and irregularities, look as if they exist effortlessly, seemingly without labor and infrastructure.
Tactility is usually a precursor for understanding an object or process through embodied interaction. The power of tangible sensory feedback is what helps to intuitively embody knowledge of what is being interacted with. If the materials are obscured, then do we lose these embodied experiences?
The contemporary smartphone is a sleek cuboid made of metal, glass and plastic. It’s meant to be held in a hand and operated with our fingertips. Each of our fingertips have more than 3,000 touch receptors, which makes them one of the most touch-sensitive body parts. Yet most of these technological cuboids, including smart phones, offer the same cold touch sensation of glass or metal.
We repeatedly swipe, hold, tilt, press and tap these sleek cuboids, consuming masses of information while skimming the surface like skating across a pond. We are engaged in a bodily performance that we are not entirely aware of. What if, instead, we interacted with technological objects by piercing, melting, carving, blowing, winding, mending, scratching, stroking?
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I’m a borderline millennial who grew up mostly in various small cities of an eastern developing country. I have had a skeptical and oftentimes cynical outlook on technology’s role in our lives. I watched as new improvements were perceived by most as something magical, something that could either solve important wicked problems or help a poor country ‘advance’. Both of which, it probably could. But I want to look beyond this incessant race of advancements based on what is conveniently consumable and technologically possible. I want to critically analyze the material experience of technological devices. These ‘advancements’ are limited to a particular type of progress, and come with a loss of value that might not be commercially productive, but that is certainly emotionally and experientially meaningful.
For as long as I can remember while living in Pakistan, the electrical power would go out every day for a few hours. If there was some electrical breakdown, which happened quite frequently, the power would go out for longer. The scheduled few hours of power outage is called ‘load shedding,’ and it still happens today, though less frequently now than it did a few years ago. Over the years, the backup power and lighting sources in our house progressed from dozens of candles and hand fans to UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to a personal petrol-powered electricity generator. Each of these stages corresponded to a different set of interactions that were performed to use and interact with objects of that time.
Around five years back, the main backup power in our home was a UPS. It was only sufficient to power the lights and ceiling fans, and not enough for the sockets or outlets. So, on an average day, when there was electrical power, I would use my technological devices and electronic objects, performing the repetitive gestural motions of tapping, swiping, stroking, tilting, pressing etc. But sometimes the power would go out unexpectedly, because they would frustratingly switch up the load shedding hours every few days. Some devices would become useless immediately as they needed to be plugged in to work, while others would take a while to ‘die’ and lose all their intended function. Eventually, there would come a stage when all the technological objects have been rendered useless and were just inanimate cuboids of glass, metal and plastic. The way I would interact with the material world around me then, when all devices were dead, was completely different from mere hours before, when they were all functioning.
These two distinct worlds would co-exist, alternating in the same day. For example, I would make some tea, read a book, talk to someone, take a walk, drive, knit etc., when the electric power would be out for hours. The movements required for these activities are diverse, rather than repetitive and absolute. The most repetitive example here would be knitting, which is a distinctive type of repetition that allows you to experience the tactility of the recurring motion. These are also activities that are comparatively more transparent in how they operate. A car, which could be also considered a technological object, has an audible causality – the roar of the engine that shifts with changing speeds, the thunk of gear shifts and the satisfying click of the car door. This makes its functioning somewhat comprehensible just by the actions you perform to drive. However, with each new advancement, you see the clinks and roars disappearing, divorcing sound from the experiences, in favor of a convenient normative ambience at all times.
Rewinding further back to the 00s, my technological coming-of-age consisted of a jumble of wires and plugs, heavy devices and bad internet connection. I was always drawn towards the mechanisms of devices: buttons, levers, switches – any physical parts to tinker with. The interactions I had with these parts usually had a visible causality to them that gave me some understanding of how and what was happening. The results of these interactions were not flawless; but while the overall experience of bad signals and unresponsiveness could oftentimes be frustrating, the material interactions themselves weren’t. All the glitchy, broken and underdeveloped parts of the technological systems made way for unconventional and unintentional rituals – banging the CPU of a computer in different places, holding down ctrl+alt+z for indefinite periods of time, tilting the antenna of the radio with the utmost concentration to hit the right spot, figuring out the correct wiring composition on the back of the stereo system, and most commonly, turning everything off and on again. Some of these interactions were not prescribed through the intended design, but emerged out of emotions and the affordances of materials.
All these interactions have now condensed into clicking and tapping, soon to disappear to be replaced solely by voice. We have high expectations from each click and tap – it is expected to always work. If it ever hesitates, pauses, or breaks down, you click and tap repeatedly, frustrated that it failed you in these technologically advanced times. There’s nothing you can fiddle with, care for, or repair materially anymore as a ‘user’, except for maybe rebooting the device and hoping it works. Care and maintenance becomes “a case of wireless software updates, where we cross fingers and hope that the internet will resurrect our Things.” 
We measure progress by how fast, compact, and ubiquitous our devices are. These boxes with screens are becoming faster, more convenient, sleeker, slimmer, and seamless – progressively less like boxes, and more like mere casings. And as I type this on the in-built keyboard on my laptop, I too am reminded of the joys of convenience and efficiency. But I am not satisfied. I want the pleasure of pushing the keys on the keyboard further down than a single millimeter, feeling the chunkiness of the keys on my fingertips and hearing the clacks, as my fingers pick up on the tactile feedback from the pressure in the mechanism. My body is more involved in this clunky interaction than my thumb tapping on a screen. My glassy sensation of tapping might not even make it to my conscious mind, as I consume the contents of the digital world through my eyes and mind alone.
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When the computer mouse became a common object, it altered our perception of the body’s role in interacting with computers. The mouse is shaped to be an extension of the hand. It consists of multiple tactile feedback loops that make it a uniquely intriguing object in computing history. In contrast to the touch screen, the mouse beckons us back to the physical world: “To move your hand onto the mouse, and then, off of it, and then, again, onto it. Those seconds in between hold you.”  This pause in itself can be seen as an act of subversion in this efficiency driven world. It brings your attention back to what is tactile and physical, to the interactions between your hand and the object. And isn’t there a value in introducing meaningful pauses and intentional friction in the seamless technological objects of today?
The mouse has since transformed to a flat touchpad, shifting the interaction from the entire hand to a finger. With each advancement, a bit more of the body is absent from the interaction, moving towards activation through voice and non-tactile gestures. There’s nothing essentially wrong with these inert interactions. Still, I question how the loss of tactile interactions impacts our bodies, considering how much of our bodies we use to learn, make and engage with the world.
‘What Shall We Do Next (Sequence # 2)’ by Julien Prévieux is a beautiful performance piece that shows an archive of gestures that we perform to interact with technological devices. These gestural motions are abstracted and emphasized through repetition in the performance. As the dancers move and enact these gestures, one of them recites the dates and facts related to the gesture and its copyrights in monotone. It illustrates how our social interactions are mediated through technology, and highlights the ways in which behavior is prescribed by the design of technological devices. It shows a world of control, monotony, and information overload. One of the quotes from the performance aptly sums up the critique: “The motion model makes tangible the notion that time is money. An unnecessary motion is therefore, money lost forever.”
Stephen Monteiro also talks about digital media’s relationship to labor, space, and our senses and emotions in ‘The Fabric of Interface’. Monteiro discusses how the labor of manufacturing technological objects and the labor that is performed by the end user both focus on: “productive labor bound in short, repetitive strokes in seemingly small tasks involving complex forms and connections. However, while the labor of assembly is seen as tedious and menial, the labor of use is framed in fantasies of liberating performance.”  These repetitive bodily motions are an example of the disciplined body. This discipline is sold as something you want and have agency over, successfully selling the seamless fantasy while in reality commodifying the interactions performed by the body to interact with technology.
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How is the world within the technological object and how is the technological object within the world? These objects are not value neutral, and neither are the words we use to talk about them. They shape the way we experience technology. Donna Haraway talks about cyborgs as “hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality” , highlighting how inseparable our lives are from technological objects. The metaphor of the cyborg portrays the body as an inescapable component of our lived experience with technology. To speak of technological devices without speaking about fingers, hands, or bodies is to ignore the reality of human experience.
The representation of technology in cyberpunk and body horror films has an intriguing contrast to present-day sleek and smooth devices. Horror technologies are frequently shown as having flesh-like, organic, and strange surfaces, with fissures and oddities. They are hybrids of human and machine, not unlike Donna Haraway’s cyborgs. Haraway elaborates on this contrast by referring to technological objects as “made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile. People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.”  If people are not fluid and require friction, texture and movement, then why do our devices aim to produce a material culture that is sterile, seamless, and inert?
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Focusing on the emotional and material nuances of interaction brings us closer to the hardware of a technological object. The way your fingers navigate the grooves of an audio jack as it audibly plugs into place, giving you an embodied sense of how parts connect to let signal flow – this tactile causality is what keeps us engaged with the material. Besides the pleasure and richness of tactility and sound, being engaged with the material also implies a networked and shared responsibility – from the materials that are extracted and the human labor required to do so, to the electricity that is produced and delivered, to the server farm that is maintained and the data that is processed, and to the delivery person at your door.
In contrast to the role of the user, a mechanic has a unique relationship with their machinery; an intimacy with its innards. However, since these devices are sealed boxes and hard to disassemble – our ability to repair and care for them becomes increasingly restricted. This detaches us from the extractive and exploitative infrastructures they exist within and are sustained by, and it also estranges us from the objects themselves. With each advancement, there is an additional layer of specialized technology on top of the ones we could never really comprehend to begin with. As end users, we are becoming further from mechanics with each update.
The relationships we form with an object are also hindered. Why is it easier to form a bond with a leather watch that your grandparent bought for you, but it’s much harder to build an emotional attachment with an Apple watch? Possibly because the trend of ‘updating’ technological objects legitimizes the option of replacing an object at any point in its life cycle, disavowing us of individual responsibility to materials. The new object will look almost the same, but it will probably be more convenient and sleeker – one step further removed from the realm of the physical. This constant ‘newness’ and updating, this technological obsolescence, is now synced with cultural obsolescence, as technological objects dominate our material culture today.
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We are living in surreal times. The global coronavirus pandemic pushes us to notice the way we produce and consume: information, food, data, technology etc. Experiencing and consuming others through screens continually bursts the imaginary bubble that frictionless minimal-touch technological interactions are the desired and optimal way of living. Sight has always been the dominant sense, but now with the danger of contamination, we are even more dependent on vision, experiencing the world from behind screens and windows, through monotonous taps to access bottomless visual information; my eyes are exhausted and I’m all tapped out. From behind the glass, I crave to touch, smell and hear the world. With this rising dependency on technology and screens, it is even more crucial now to analyze the emotional and material role of technological objects in our everyday lives.