‘Living in an age of advertisement, we are perpetually disillusioned. The perfect life is spread before us every day, but it changes and withers at a touch.’ – J.B Priestley.
In this series of essays on the senses and how they have evolved in modern life, why not start with as pertinent and deep a quote as you could wish for from such a writer as Priestley? True, that life of blue pools, soft silks, fresh lobster is still very much spread before us – only now you can zoom in, tap, highlight, copy the image a thousand times over in a imitation of an interaction with this charmed existence. Priestley could not have foretold that we are all gods now; the darest hint of a touch can show our approval or dislike of a place, thing, or even person. In reality, fingertips are not dragging through crystalised, perfect blue water – they are jabbing at plastic and glass. Touch, these days, does anything but wither.
So how have we got here? How has our touch, a sense, an ability we are born with, been so co-opted? Well, revisit its mission statement: to discover. As infants, it’s second only to taste – as the child feeds, skin to skin contact with the mother is a vital part of the bonding process – and builds up the map of touch we contribute to all our lives. Later, it’s a comfort, help – when we are old and grey, we trust family and professionals to protect us as much as we ever did when we were children. So. What about what happens in-between?
Start at the beginning – Londinium. A place of business, fierce debate, and debauchery. And touch was at the centre of it: with no cutlery to handle food, you felt pomegranate juices run down your arm; with a booming textile industry, all the satin and silk you could run your hands over at the market; with no machinery, all the amphora you could wish to fashion. Touch was in everything.
In later centuries, the idea of touch relying on ownership and status emerged in the typical Georgian household – fineries like crushed velvet silk were made to be worn and reclined upon by the do-wells vs. plain cotton and coarse wool which was made for staff to wipe hands on. The only time we, the common people, might touch fine silks would be to turn down the beds. This status- defining touch-culture did maintain, but eventually, thanks in particular to the 1950s post-war materialism, we did manage to blur the barriers. One might say we had the factory to thank – fabric, furniture, clothing – suddenly available in quantities and at a newly affordable price. That perfect life crept ever closer.
So what delights of touch do we luxuriate in these days? Woods of all kinds are still zeitgeisting, materials, fabrics and textures are still imported from all corners of the globe – but with a mass-produced model of the same sofa in every home from Hounslow to Hammersmith bought in Habitat, is it really a Turkish Ottoman? Amongst all this lavish availability and perfect copy, quietly, the generation millennial was seduced from a garish, heavy plastic ‘mobile’ to a sleek, glass smartphone. And they hardly noticed. This same generation marvel at the next: our children “just get” impressive technology that it took us years to master, just look at them go! I need hardly keep an eye on little ones as an iPad closes down the threat of a truant child faster than a red ‘x’ on a webpage.
But what is the real cost of this affinity with the reflective friends we’ve let into our homes and lives? And what does it mean for our sense of touch? Will we soon find ourselves with only one overriding texture: one that doesn’t occur naturally, is not an organic material, and doesn’t even show wear or imperfection in its makeup? From an evolutionary perspective, there’s nothing we can feel, understand or learn from our phone screens. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. It can learn us. With its shiny appearance, we, vain and flattered by it’s familiar reflection, are seduced with sharing more and more of ourselves with it. And we are already feeling the pinch.
Not content with streamlining texture, and enhancing the most subconscious and pleasing act of glide, we have been encouraged to use the other facility of touch, that of pressure, as silent acquiescence. Software has evolved to allow fingerprint access to personal technology and your home. Currently, you can purchase using a ‘touch’ method, pressing a card to the reader, and we are often encouraged to ‘touch in’ and ‘touch out.’ Online websites that deliver music to your devices and gadgets to your homes boast a ‘One Touch’ payment system, rendering the good old-fashioned password quite obsolete. Hey, it’s simple, clean, efficient – the less you think about buying, the more frequently you buy. First steps: anesthetise touch. Second: Monetise it.
So it’s all sounding a bit Blade Runner at the moment, but is there any upside to this evolution of touch? Who knows – for all the naysaying, using touch as authentication might just be the answer to eradicating online fraud and cyber crime – after all, every fingerprint is unique. However, unlike a password, you can’t change a fingerprint, and you leave them on everything you touch. Eyes, then? Retinal unlocking of smartphones is already a thing, but we only have two of those… we’re running out of body parts here, guys. Who else is not looking forward to the future?
It’s very tempting to throw your phone into a canal before jumping headfirst into a ball pit to try and forget the horrors that may await us, or emulate big cats, vainly rubbing ourselves all over furniture and tables in an attempt to ‘switch-up’ our touch template, but resistance may be futile. This from technologist and science writer Ramez Naam: “Neural implants could accomplish things no external interface could: attention and learning speed; even multi-sense telepathy – sharing what we see, hear, touch and even perhaps what we think and feel with others.” So maybe, give in? Things, people and information are quite literally at our fingertips and the world is no longer the big place it used to be. As long as we retain a desire to still do some things for ourselves, venture outside every once in a while, and fully make use of our senses we should be fine. Yeah. Totally fine. Maybe we should do as the great Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon bade us, scratched into parchment, all those centuries ago:
“One touch of Nature makes the whole world Kin,” wrote Shakespeare.
So in conclusion, come on kinfolk: rub a cat’s tummy, sniff a rose (if you haven’t got hayfever, that is) and prick your hands on thorns, pick blueberries to stain your fingers, trace them along bark and repot plants sans gloves. That perfect life might not be unattainable as you think.