Softbody / Hardware

sofbody screen handOur flesh is implicated. Implicated in contact, in proximity, always in relations. We experience the world because we touch it intimately. We slide our fingers against the other to learn, to place ourselves.[1]

It’s a soft touch, a caress: fingertips trailing down the spine. “[It] consists in seizing upon nothing…in soliciting what slips away as though it were not yet. It searches, it forages. It is not an intentionality of disclosure but of search: a movement unto the invisible.”[2]

Fingers sliding down the back, and goosebumps and downy hair rising in response. When we touch, something receives. Something is always modified, formed or deformed, unlocked. A searching touch is a creative one: it seeks formation. “In caressing the Other,” writes Sartre, “I cause flesh to be born beneath my caress, under my fingers.”[3]

Image via Apple

Image via Apple

Touch establishes our bodies in the world; it simultaneously subordinates the world to the needy being, the searching hand.[4] From this perspective all contact, even the softest caress, becomes a form of domination and mastery, of control. That is to ignore, though, that what our hands seek, finds us back with a shock. My finger up against your glass. That’s how I know you are real: you resist me. We’re both reaffirmed.

The newest models of iPhones are equipped with 3D touch, an interface that allows the phone to respond to varying levels of finger pressure from the user. The screen is sensitive to the intensity of the user’s touch. You press lightly to “peek” into a message, a website, or app; increased finger pressure “pops” the content open.

The advertising campaign reports: “There are so many ways that pressing deeper can make what you’re doing a better experience.” It champions the interface’s “fast, active, and continuous response to finger pressure.”[5] It encourages an understanding of the phone as a tool in our hand, or else a prosthetic of it. In short, our touch is meant to be one of mastery over the device. We are promised control over our contact with others, through it.

Image via Apple

Image via Apple

But the interface is a haptic one, meaning it synthesizes the visual (the screen) and the tactile (our bodies.) “When you use 3D touch, your iPhone responds with subtle taps. So not only will you see what a press can do—you’ll feel it,” Apple explains.[6] To navigate the phone’s digital space, both vision and touch must be engaged at once. Like feeling through a snowstorm, waiting for the earth to establish itself under your feet with each step, the phone presses back against your finger to establish your movement through its digital space. As responsive to our touch as it might be, we are equally reliant on its immediate reaction, its press back, in order to orient ourselves.

Images via Apple

Images via Apple

This dynamic, a type of physical call and response between the user and phone, produces sensations that, “are not simply a set of localized kinesthetic forces, felt by the fingertips alone, but an embodied, visceral feeling…”[7] The device is not a tool or prosthetic of, but in relation to, the seeking hand. In a sense, it is a body of its own: a screen with the resistance and elasticity of flesh.

Image via Apple

Image via Apple

Where we once only slid our fingers against cold, flat glass we are now offered the illusion of a screen that has more (to) give. Touch is communicative, the cell phone an intermediary for those we cannot reach by our hands or voices: other bodies in other places. With older models of touch screens we caress the distance between, conjure connection in and through the virtual ether. In comparison, 3D touch offers the vibratory immediacy of being in the physical world; it sends a jolt of connection that unites the visual and the tactile in a moment of presence.

The interface is navigated by moving through layers, dipping in and out of content. All of the language is extremely bodily; we slide and pinch, pop and press against the screen. Apple describes these movements as linear[8], envisions a body that operates quickly and smoothly, sleek as a device.

Image via Apple

Image via Apple

But not all devices operate smoothly, and certainly not all bodies. Technology offers us the dream of customization and control, an immaterial, infinite and manipulable visual space. Despite the necessity of branding 3D touch as an interface that furthers those ends, touching these new screens instead makes way for the clumsy, fleshy body, feeling its way forward and through the distance between. A body that can be touched back, affected, bowled over.

Vibration is movement between two entities and simultaneously, resonance within one. We quiver in anticipation and then in response to another’s words, their hand on our skin. Haptic technology collapses distance; it produces tangible sensation in the present derived from a distant or virtual source. Movements in the distance produce a flash to the screen, a double vibration in the hand. 3D touch, with its instantaneous jolt of response, creates a dynamic between user and phone that is infinite, a feedback loop. We are in a state of constant resonance: bodies with porous borders.

Our relationship to this technology necessarily becomes a haptic one, too: “our self rushes up to the surface to interact with another surface. When this happens there is a concomitant loss of depth…we cannot help but be changed in the process of interacting.”[9] The widespread use of this technology opens up the possibility of being constantly in resonance with others, those we reach through the phone, too. This is already true for bodies that occupy the same physical space; we can point to the process of entrainment, by which people become chemically alike through imbibing each other’s pheromones, as an example of this. Theories surrounding hive mind or the collective consciousness indicate a similar meeting between those who occupy immaterial spaces. But 3D touch perhaps allows for this type of openness between bodies even further removed from each other.

However, this begs the question of how we are in resonance both with the phone and those we reach through it because people are not technology. If the phone is not a prosthetic, can it be a surrogate? The word “surrogate” is derived from the Latin super rogare: to over-ask. Do we demand too much of metal and glass to carry the heat, the texture of skin? Fear encircles the joint where the human body fuses to the machine; we alternately worship and point a shaking finger at the graft. Regardless, in both points of view our flesh becomes metal-plated. But our interaction with haptic technology perhaps emphasizes our skin, in all its softness and vulnerability. It acts as a carrier of connection rather than an extension of the self.

It eliminates the possibility for touch to be simply control, for technology to carry only the texture and implication of armor. Widespread use of haptic technology potentializes a world where disparate bodies coalesce in positions: both physically in interacting with their devices (hands to the glass) but also in states of feeling, moments of receptivity to being touched back. It opens, in a way, a space of chaos.

If our senses are engaged so intrinsically when interacting with our devices—and these technologies so embedded in everyday experience—then the feeling of interacting with them necessarily becomes political. Making haptic technology widely available has the potential to open a political space within the everyday in which feeling is not coded in individual bodies—is instead formed in sync between them—and which furthers our understanding that what is formed within the ether has material, felt consequences.

[1] Levinas, E. (1989), “Ethics as First Philosophy,” The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 79.

[2] Levinas, E. (1969), Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Pittsburgh PA: Duquesne University Press, pp. 257-8.

[3] Sartre, Jean-Paul (1966) Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, trans. H.E. Barnes, New York: Washington Square Press, 506-7.

[4] Levinas, E. (1969), Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Pittsburgh PA: Duquesne University Press, pp. 116

[5] “IPhone 6s: 3D Touch.” 2015. Accessed 2015.

[6] “IPhone 6s: 3D Touch.” 2015. Accessed 2015.

[7] Hannaford, B. “Feeling is Believing: A History of Telerobotics,” in K. Goldberg (ed.) The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet, London: MIT Press, p 274

[8] “IPhone 6s: 3D Touch.” 2015. Accessed 2015.

[9] Marks, Laura. “Introduction.” In Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, p. xvi.