Losing Touch

My worry? Losing touch.

Biologists at the University of Newcastle, UK, recently published a report claiming fingers wrinkling in a long bath was a sign of evolutionary advantage. The prune-like transformation provided the digits with a better grip. More than help to grasp the soap, this skin puckering suggested a matter of survival as our Mesolithic ancestors foraged for food in rivers and rock pools.

That widely-reported reminder of our evolved capabilities helped assuage my own real worry—call it, perhaps, a haptical terror—about losing touch with the physical world. What was the future for fingers, as tools, in the digital age? Where the latest interface is a touch which is smooth and feather-light, where the human to machine commands are advancing to be spoken, or breathed, or blinked, even transmitted by brain waves, would finger-work be the preserve of artists and childs-play? Fingers could still form churches and steeples, and all the peoples, be in the play of poets, peel an orange. But in the digital age would there be pages still to turn, tendrils to be untangled, a place for hard key-strokes, not simply passing swipes?

After all, the digit, birth-marked with its unique code, is our security guard, a hush as much as the finger placed to the mouth.

But the fingers are fighting back.

We are encouraged to wield kitchen tools, find grandma's sewing box. To beat eggs, pound dough, and ice cakes, to join knitting circles, to plunge our hands into landscape to pick wild food. Things are still palpable; real book sales are encouraging and we are still hooked on marginalia, and turning down the corner of a page.

A few weeks ago I visited the Florida house where Jack Kerouac wrote Dharma Bums in an ecstatic burst of typing over eleven days and nights. In this refuge from New York critics of 'On the Road', his fingers translated brain to hand to brain, synapses sizzling from caffeine and Benzadrine. In these wooden rooms nearly 60 years later could be heard the distinctive sound of a metal typewriter. Not Jack's ghost pounding out but the latest writer-in-residence, a young woman in her 20s, who, it transpired, had arrived from Ohio with both a laptop and a vintage manual typewriter, to know what it felt like.

This essay began with the proverbial note sketched out by hand on the back of an envelope. My fingers then picked out the words on my smartphone. My worry had been that these two processes, necessary to shape and synthesise, were somehow conflicted. I worried about our grip on technology. But the wrinkling of our fingers reminds that we engage with the evolved, and the still evolving.