Haphephobia (also known as
aphephobia,haphophobia,hapnophobia, haptephobia,haptophobia,thixophobia) is a rare specific phobia that involves the fear of touching or of being touched. (Wikipaedia)
How did it happen that we touch so many devices, and we do so in so many ways, but when it comes to human touch, there is a long list of problems associated with ‘the way’ and ‘the why’ we touch other humans. The power of human touch has not changed over the decades (and centuries) but the relationship to touching has changed dramatically.
Reflecting on Marshall McLuhan’s description of the media being extensions of our nervous system, in the preface to Archeologies of Touch, David Parisi observed as a deeply embodied, linked process:
Touch—as an ongoing feedback loop of action and reaction, of sensing and movement—was not a mental process of synesthetically translating between
sensemodalities, as McLuhan frequently claimed. Instead, it was a fundamentally embodied and mechanistic process, involving the stimulation of dense and variegated mechanoreceptors, the exertion of muscles distributed in the joints, and the transmission of complex signals across nerves akin but irreducible to electrical networks.
Touch as a product?
When you wake up, who or what do you touch first? It is probably your alarm clock, often on your mobile phone. After that comes the partner (maybe) or your pet. When the touch is being closely observed, it becomes strikingly obvious how mediated and commodified it has become. The everyday picture of hundreds of commuters constantly touching, scrolling, fidgeting with their devices on their way to work, and a sound “Sorry” is heard every time someone brushes off or accidentally touches someone else. Recently, there was a joint campaign of a mobile provider and Tinder that played on the awkwardness of chatting to strangers and “the easiness” of swiping their 2D images. Funny, right? Shocking, I would argue. We are seeing these kinds of ads publicly while there is a Ministry of Loneliness being established as an official attempt to cure one of the most toxic influences of our time – being out of touch meaningful with others. Losing touch with human forms of communication is one of the most important steps to alienating yourself. To “lose touch” literally means you are disconnected. And while being disconnected you are more easily influenced. There is no mirror to your action, you are in the loop with yourself. It is almost like a psychopath’s strategy to separate you from your sustaining network and then fully manipulate and control you. Doesn’t this remind you of the everpresent and “open” possibility of connection via the dating apps, that often fails to have any meaning aside from entertaining the ego with new stimuli in bigger numbers:
One thing seems sure in a finite world, that these new forms of connection produce as much copresence as they increase absence. They do not really reduce distance; they redistribute it. (1)
Observing a bigger picture, once we lose touch with our immediate community, it does not stop our craving for a touch, it just diverts it to the other available sources. And that is where the commodification is free to step in. Our vulnerability, the need to belong and to share on a meaningful level with our community (intimate and larger) is more easily exploited and packed into “touch this” or “like this” or “watch this” type of a distant, mediated relation.
Not to be on the side of the negative consequences, we should also look on the side of the need fulfilled – where the actual technology provides the much needed “keeping in touch”. However, what we get out of them should not be confused with the fact that they are commodified (and very powerfully so), since they are made to be “appealing” through the fact that they are providing you with the way to be “closer” (or “in touch”) with your friends and family:
Haptic technologies feel particularly appealing for those for whom mobility has transformed the community and who have to “survive in the diaspora” (Haraway 1991a, 171). Touch technologies and longings of being in touch match well. The remaking of sensorial experience through the intensification of digital touch feeds on the marketing of proximities in the distance and our investment in longing. (2)
Touch As (an invisible) Presence
In 1999, the city I lived in was bombed by NATO forces and we were all “touched” by the decision to launch air attacks on a city with almost 2 million people (among other cities in Serbia) by bombs that have become known as “very precise”. Each imprecision had a name- collateral damage. On the ground (or – in reality) each “collateral damage” had a name, home address, life story, a family and some dreams and hopes for the future. Each “distantly affected” was a real human being. Up in the air, it was a smear on the radar. Or a cluster of numbers that are called “collateral” – impersonal, unimportant, statistical and dehumanized. And to just point out another invisible touch we experience every day – the ‘ever-present’ eye of the surveillance cameras – some of which we see, and some that we do not.
Out of Touch and the Absence of Care
Babies that grow up without being touched, held or emotionally cared for (even without any words or descriptions shared) the emotional and even the immune system show the signs of neglect.
In 1994, the neurobiologist Mary Carlson, one of Harlow’s former students, travelled to Romania with the psychiatrist Felton Earls to study the effects of severe deprivation on the
decreteichildren who had been abandoned to understaffed orphanages. Typical findings included muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements, behaviours very similar to those of socially deprived macaques and chimpanzees. (3)
Humans that grow up tied to the concrete, optimized and statistically infested society that freaks out on the slightest contact with raw nature (not the mediated one) are actually out of touch not only with the source of life but with the entire ecosystem. And by the ecosystem I mean the actual, life-sustaining interdependency we all have with the habitat. At the very beginning of the essay Resisting Reduction – Designing our Complex Future With Machines, Joichi Ito makes a very clear distinction between the self-regulating model of the natural order and the “cancerous” model of unrestrained growth of computational power at the cost of everything else to be applied to the future we are designing:
Nature’s ecosystem provides us with an elegant example of a complex adaptive system where myriad “currencies” interact and respond to feedback systems that enable both flourishing and regulation. This collaborative model–rather than a model of exponential financial growth or the Singularity, which promises the transcendence of our current human condition through advances in technology—should provide the paradigm for our approach to artificial intelligence.
What does the out-of-touch growth really mean? Think – cancer (another brilliant metaphor from the above-mentioned essay) and think a white-Eurocentric-Humanist male (that is so well described in the Posthuman by Rosi Braidotti) that puts the provisional himself above all there is on the Earth and ask yourself – do we need to go to Mars as to colonize another planet (another source to drain) once we turn this one into a barren trash land or should we fix our approach (our “human touch”) and care for what we have here on Earth, first and foremost? Think – permaculture and how we can (and why we should) go back to the roots. And what it means for us as human beings to touch the dirt, plants, and animals. There is another fitting metaphor in language for the creative touch: getting your hands dirty.
(1, 2) Puig de La Bellacasa, M, 2017, Matters of Care, University of Minnesota Press
(3) Burton, Neel, 2017, Touch Hunger, [online], Accessed March 8th, 2019