And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Baah Humbug!

My phone is almost five years old, and it wasn’t a new model when I bought it. The screen protector is cracked and flaking, glass splintering into my fingers if I brush its surface the wrong way. The case is also cracked — both layers, rubber and plastic. Inside its faltering body, few apps are compatible with such a dated operating system, and glitches sabotage my attempts to order taxis, buy tickets and type messages.

I’ll admit this is an extreme example of my reluctance to adopt new technology. Some of it, really, is negligence. But my phone belongs to a whole family of decrepit tech, including CDs, (broken) film cameras, wired over-ear headphones and a card that isn’t contactless. When it comes to digital platforms, I’m worse. I’ve never used Hinge or TikTok. I do have an Instagram account, but I’ve never posted anything. It’s a frequent source of irritation and amusement amongst my friends. One affectionately rubs my shoulder; “my little Luddite”, she coos.

And she’s right, though there’s more to this than being resistant to change or getting a kick from having a phone thieves don’t want.

I have a soft spot for the Luddites. Their name an insult, their origins obscured. To be a Luddite means to be small-minded, to resent progress, to resist the inevitable. Or at least, that’s what we mean when we say it.

The Luddites, writes Jathan Sadowski, were a secret organisation of workers who smashed machinery in English textile factories in the early 19th century. ‘The contemporary usage of Luddite has the machine-smashing part correct’, he observes, ‘but that’s about all it gets right.’

The Luddites weren’t opposed to new technology, but to how manufacturers would pay ‘​​low wages, disregard worker safety, or speed up the pace of work.’ It was only manufacturers known for exploitative behaviour whose machines were targeted. And the machines weren’t new, either. ‘It wasn’t the invention of these machines that provoked the Luddites to action’, Sadowski explains. ‘They only banded together once factory owners began using these machines to displace and disempower workers.’

Like the Luddites, I’m concerned with how technology is enmeshed in the flow of power. Over 200 years later, tech has become diffuse and immaterial, shaping our lives beyond work in ways it’s difficult to see. Tech is out of our hands now; an assemblage of pixels, something in the air.

Technology’s move away from tactility doesn’t just make the objects we own useless, as pieces of code break them from the inside, or they’re replaced by digital platforms; it affects our relationships too. What I’m interested in is distance and obsolescence, in the loss of touch. In chatbot therapists, livestreaming and dating apps. In how the brand language of these things speaks of connection, despite the divide that they maintain.

‘Intelligence begins with the vulnerability of skin’, writes Richard Kearney. We can feel before we can see or hear — heat, pressure and pain mark our first encounter with the world. It’s the start of sense that underpins all others, which involve their own kinds of touch. Sound waves ripple through our ears, carried by tiny hairs that enable us to hear. Light hits our retinas, allowing us to see. Kerney’s essay Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense, is written ‘in praise of the desire for tactile proximity’, celebrating its nuanced history as he questions ‘what is touch? Where is touch? And how might we get it back again?’

Kearney describes our society as ‘optocentric’, as it constructs a hierarchy of the senses where sight oversees touch, taste, smell and hearing. I think about the vibrant colours and sleek (im)materials of the hyperreal images that saturate our culture, and wonder whether their lack of texture is a symptom of touch’s declining hold. I think about the impossible smoothness of AI renderings, of rotund fonts and Instagram adverts for earrings that look like mirrored globules. The lack of friction lets my gaze become soft and glossy.

There is, of course, power at play within sight. It lets us look without being seen, to satisfy our senses whilst maintaining a distance. This voyeurism isn’t possible with touch. We can look at something that can’t look back, but everything we touch touches us in return. This two-sidedness is what Edmund Husserl calls ‘double sensation’, as we experience ‘the feeling of touching and being touched at the same time’. This lifts us down from the hierarchy and grounds us in amongst the world. It’s humbling. It reminds us that we’re vulnerable.

‘Whereas sight promises domination of my environment’, writes Kearney, ‘touch is the crossroads between me and all that is not me.’ It connects us to other people, intrigues and challenges us, forces us to be present. Touch is the start of empathy.

What happens when we replace a touch with a look, or mediate contact through technology? I’m thinking about dating apps and social media, in particular the behaviours they’ve fostered and neologisms they’ve birthed. Airing, breadcrumbing, ghosting; each has the ring of absence. Byung-Chul Han argues that these digital mediators erode our sense of ‘the Other’ as a person, as they ‘flatten’ everything into ‘an object of consumption’. Making a person into a digital object eschews the intimacy of double sensation, trapping us within what Han calls ‘the inferno of the same’.

The digital object we become through these platforms can be curated, traded and evaluated. This objectification is enacted on dating apps especially fluently, under the gaze of what Eva Illouz calls ‘scopic capitalism’. Like Kearney’s optocentrism, this form of capitalism locates value almost exclusively in appearance, forcing us to participate in ‘the productive sphere of labour as an image to be sold’. It’s worth noting that this kind of tech didn’t create scopic capitalism, but extended its cool logic into our pockets — and our relationships with others. The judgments it enables are ‘non-interactional and one-sided’, Illouz observes, defined by a sense of ‘speed’ and ‘optimisation’ that encourages us to see people as interchangeable. Dating apps are a phenomenon that my Luddite heart can’t bear. They make me feel flat and fungible… just like an image.

‘Perversions and pathologies of touch’, writes Kearney, ‘involve the reification of the person as a mere object’. I mull over the idea that loss of touch could be a kind of societal pathology, one that deprives us of tact(ility) — our ability to be ‘sensitive in our behaviour with others’. If we can’t reach the Other (in form or concept), how can we learn tact?

What arises through this network of ideas, effects and perspectives is an image of the contemporary Luddite not as a figure who hates technology, but who is deeply sceptical of its presence in the most intimate areas of our lives, where it can reproduce an ideology of competition, individualism and objectification. This kind of capitalist logic lets us lose touch with ourselves, and each other.

Touch isn’t the cure for this individualism, and skin-to-skin contact won’t save us from the reach of capitalism. But it can foster empathy, which is a humanising and community-building practice that resists objectification. I eye up my crap phone, which is in considerably worse shape than when I first started this essay. I think of the friend I wrote about in the beginning and pick up the cracked case. Love & miss u, I type, can’t wait to give u a hug x.


Q said...

Cogent and insightful...

-FJ the Dangerous and Extreme MAGA Jew said...

Each sense makes a contribution.