The power of physical contact in the age of technology

Recently I delved into a literary classic sci-fi novel which I had not browsed through since well back into my distant college days. Merely turning through the leaves of this deeply profound yet remarkably short piece of prose sent a tingling sensation of delight through my excitably uncontrollable hands. Drawing me back towards a period when my professor of philosophy immersed us in the futuristic lit springing up post War which sought to explain this modernistic world which we now felt ourselves entering into. Preparing ourselves to face an epoch where human relationships were in the process of facing a revolutionary transition as we now saw ourselves merging our way into the era of the automaton.

As in that awe inspiring case of the ‘thinking rational’   Turk chess excelling automaton, an astounding hoax that nonetheless captured the human imagination for the previously “inconceivable”, my thoughtful yet tormented teacher was no doubt a product of an era which was completely stunned by the sudden mass deposit of technology which they now found at their very instantaneous disposal. The atom bomb had certainly given this new tech generation an explosive initiation ceremony.

The text which had enthralled, perplexed and alarmed all at once was a brief but certainly not a light text written by a man who concretely contested the supposed social pitfalls of being over swept by this technological tsunami. The Naked Sun, which appeared on shelves in the latter part of the 50s was Isaac’s Asimov’s didactic endeavour to deal with the social meltdown which was beginning to emerge by way of measuring the very visible reduction in the need for relationships, communication between people and even more alarming the rapidly eroding urge to have a bond based on any form of physical contact.

The novel enlightens us, more or less, of where an over reliance upon technology may precariously be leading us as in the plot it is eventually discovered that the humanoid beings who live in their gadget and gizmo Eden are the victims of their total faith in the ‘System’ or the Matrix if we are to fast forward to a more recognisable modern equivalent.

In the pursuit to find the guilty in that most heinous of physical forms of contactual brutalisations, the physical hands on killing or murder of another sentient being, a high agoraphobic detective from Earth, perhaps still a tad more human in cosmetic nature than the equivalents which he encounters, is eventually able to absolve the dumbfounded inhabitants of this ‘largely’ emotion devoid utopia where crime surely should not exist. And why would it as the detective later encounters as even the act of murder requires the display of incredibly strong and intimately passionate emotions. Feelings, that the reader will have observed, seemed to have departed from these beings many eons ago.

In a twist of irony, it is the piece of tin with wires who is culpable for the deplorable deed showing that while we ourselves are heading down that perilous path of being nothing more than biological flesh and blood robots while the creations we build to serve us ascend to a whole new dimension of artificial intelligence. Could it be that machines will one day ‘feel’ more than we ourselves do?

Asimov along with my fear instilled professor succumbed to this what some ‘rationalists’ would call paranoia that the signs of an age where the interactions between people are gradually being eroded. The need to “touch” and to feel is perhaps a basic element of the human condition which has been seriously neglected by certain observers. Yet, developmental psychologists would be the first to attest to that invaluable physical connection which is established by mother and child during this vital period of socialisation. Attachment theory concretely shows that touch plays an important role in the form of communication for the small human. Of course, language later appears as it is hardwired into us. But close contact between the mother and child is a communication highway where values of security, trust and above all love are transferred upon the child. Any behavioural theorist can determine that the consequences for a child denied tactile physical nutrition and stimulation tend to increase the likelihood of negative antisocial traits appearing later in life.

And yet in an age which is increasingly frowning upon the touchy feely, we are on a collision course to creating a tech Frankenstein which makes us look even less human than our own manufactured monstrosity. So regularly are we shrieking at our politicians to deal with the misbehaving youth gone wild while still not wishing to “soil” our hands by “touching” the squalid matter.

Teacher’s being frowned upon for physically patting their budding students on the back, sports coaches from high fiveing their star athlete and even aunts and uncles urged to refrain from embracing their nieces and nephews. The hugs which I received over the course of a weekend family reunion would abhor these Millennials and future generations. And yet perhaps the biggest indicator of this ‘touch deprived’ society is the assault we launch upon those who clearly collide with our current conceptions.

Breastfeeding mothers is the natural case that springs to mind. This is a debate which has in no uncertain terms received a considerable degree of time in the social spotlight. Here is a classic case of tactile act vital towards infant emotional and physical development which has been transformed into a lewd act of public indecency. For in our age of post ‘touch’ displays of physical intimacy have taken on taboo like understanding.

Even on buses, couples wishing to express their affections by way of a gentle peck (kiss) on the cheeks or heaven forbid the lips have been met by derision and disgust by an observing Big Brother like public which will not stand for this open hanky panky.

Perhaps, one would argue that some acts of ‘tactile affection’ could be exercised more discretely. I am mildly prepared to take the bait. However, there are rising signs which suggest that our phobia with ‘physical proximity, touching and feeling have been taken to a ridiculously new absurd extreme.

To compensate for our needs to stroke the living we have been reduced to having to accept tapping and running our fingers across pieces of tech while we assert a revolution towards any kind of human contact. People who droop their lengthy necks down concealing themselves behind the safety of their smooth and tepid screens avoiding eye contact as if evading contracting some diabolical plague or even a curse by means of that old historical jinx the evil eye. Regarding you at a secure distance with suspicious apprehension even at times angrily questioning your stare or fixation of breaking that post Industrial revolution taboo of invading another person’s biospherelical bubble. Afraid that any alien intrusion just may be the vulnerable pin prick that will burst their invisible circular capsule of individualistic self-containment and personal protection.

The social formalities of the once traditional shop transaction now an awkward process of rapidly acquiring your goods while pretending to show some interest in meteorological imprecisions and uncertainties. Interrupt or dare to invade the realm of another sentient creation at your own deadly discretion for ones good will banter may leave the hordes to interpret you as a social menace to the values of normality and conformity.

‘Feeling’ as it pertains to emotional stroking is just another way in which we are rapidly evolving into being solitude savouring Salarians favouring to mix with our machines rather than with mankind. Indeed, the unnerving and uncomfortable process of the face to face business action is, fortunately for some, swiftly shifting towards man meddling and mingling with his or her Mac. These days we seemingly prefer to do all of our work through the acts of tablet tapping on machines willing to oblige in every one of our inner indulgences. From ordering our groceries, to answering our queries, to obtaining us a fresh shirt made by some less privileged Bangladeshi sweatshop slave.

Is here that I would debate that on this life a la carte served on a convenient little cart for us that we in this ‘your wish is my command’  computing cult that we have entrenched ourselves so deeply into this wired world that we have forgotten about how to delight from the ‘feel’ that for millennia our ancestors formerly exceeded us in doing. In a world where we no longer ‘touch’ what we make how can we ever feel the sensations which come with the pains and joys that come with toiling in the ‘tactile’ physical world. Never knowing how it felt to squeeze fresh orange juice from a real juicy plump Californian tree fruit, the sun baking your face as you harvested your barley, the smell of sawn timber as you fabricated your own bar stool. Where has our reverence for such old world wonders wandered off to?

We are on the gloomy path   of spiritual obliteration in an era which urges us to sit back, shut up and increasingly encouraged not to invest too much effort in lifting a hand. Good grief that you ever actually manage to sculpt or bring life or vitality to an object through the power of your touch. Beyond the memory white washing of ‘handling’ actions which once were stimulated by production, nurturing and feeling of both animate and inanimate objects we have been forced to suppress the physical sensations in order to accept reality of other things and embrace a less tangible experience.

Living vicariously through a box with circuitry while man ‘the beast’ is tossed aside like some unwanted Xmas hand me down. Often not having the faintest idea of how many of these things we ‘cherish’ (if an emotion word may be afforded by the jury) came into being. All that apparently seems to matter is that we can have the power to click our fingers, err no that’s still too ‘touchy’ I mean some keys without even the need of a verbal command such as abracadabra to transform the immaterial into the material.

This is perhaps unsurprising, at least in the West where since the founding of the Judeo Christian mind-set the faithful flock have been intellectuals torn between the body/mind paradox. The human god complex that never quite dissipated even after Eden showed us to be flawed in multiple manners. Serpents and the fairer sex (women) often bearing the brunt of guilt for an Adam who tried to elevate himself to the celestial realm by blaming others for his own inherent faults.

If anything, Eden as a moral is the reality that in spite of our volition not to be seen as just another animal our actions on that day were governed by very ‘physical’ desires that we sought to touch. Who knows what they were, to feel the firmness of the fruit, to feel the sweet nectar sliding down our throats, to relish the crunching sensation as our teeth sliced through the apple. Either way the act of masticating the forbidden fruit left us feeling replete and satisfied. Until we got caught by the All Powerful and were later expelled, of course.

However, even in this incredibly harsh act, whether you believe in the account or not, you do not need faith to see that being sent into the wild unknown gave Adam and Eve for every bit of toil which brought them some physical remuneration, especially in the form of sustenance. For as much as we’d like to conceive of ourselves as a unique entity which occupies the highest echelons along with the Creator and his Angels while we are in our ‘bodily’ forms we need physical elements to keep us functioning and alive. More than anything, it is our ability to touch which is what makes us human and remarkable from all other creations.

Great tomes of wording have expressed how tool making allowed man to race well ahead of the mammalian pack setting their specie to be the apex leader of all life here on Earth. However, man the creator has perhaps come to the crossroads of just how dangerous it becomes when you take technology to level yourself closer to God while you risk losing everything that makes you human.

In our Industrial Revolution of technological splendour we are now at the cusp of a turning point in our history which threatens to rob us of our genetic birth right to delight in communicating and creating via the act of touching. What will be the pit of despair that mankind will sink into as he is no longer enticed to create as machines gradually start to take control of all the activities which once brought us such inner satisfaction. Such excitement I felt as a young boy when my grandmother served me rhubarb and apple tart on lazy carefree Sunday afternoons which poppops (granddad) make me wooden toys from the branches he perennially pruned from the wide girthed weeping willows that towered proudly over their colonial English cottage house.

The stopwatch which captures contentedness seems to be getting shorter and shorter as I encroaching my way toward senescence. In an age where we ‘actively, physically and emotionally’ invest even less tactile energy into which we ‘manually’ manufacture the joyride rapidly wears thin. And to reboost we go back online and shop and feel good until what we buy later becomes obsolete and we are forced to buy again.

Ironically, when I was ‘wee whippersnapper’ (small boy) the joy of going to my grandparents was because they actually ‘manufactured’ stuff, STUFF that me and Caroline my sister really reaaally loved consuming. That was me, little me anyway, learning and playing in Pops tool shed while Caro (my sister) learnt how to make the most exquisite cakes, slices and biscuits. In present day ME A.D. what I really cherish now was not the lavish of attention or the goodies we got but the actual ‘tactile’ emotional nurturing we got from our very loving Nana and Pop. Cuddles, pats on the back, kisses, hugs and what not we got the whole lot. And we were incredibly blessed. No amount of disposable income or replaceable material can equate to the worth of this magical Golden Passage of our upbringing.

Whilst materials longings will always form an intricate part of the human existence and our ‘competition’ for resources the ease and almost effortless manner in which we secure these physical goods without the feeling of accomplishment derived from “handling” or “HAND-Crafting” the items means that our satisfaction in consuming something we played no shape or form in producing will never reward us with the same emotion gratification and self-pride.

Sound bodies occupied by withering spirits slowly being eroded away. In this shallow dark and dingy mind-set we forget the human automatons who the machines depend upon to achieve Master status. In effect, turning ourselves and our ill-fated brothers and sisters into ‘soulless’ and “sense-less” drones while allowing machines to deprive and deny us of the ‘touch’ which allows us to feel the depths of our human emotional range. True machines exist because we allow them to and because they do many jobs which we don’t wish to do but at the end of it all we pay a price for their existence in our tactile losses and self-expression through connectively engaging with things.

Hal 9000 from that Stanley Kubrick classic 2001 A Space Odyssey serves to painfully remind us that if we entrusts all control and actions to our robots it may be hard for us to ‘man handle’ and relinquish these powers back. Eroding away any remaining internal volition to ‘feel’ the ecstasy which is the product of when we constructively come into meaningful contact with things and the overwhelmingly gratifying sentiments that develop as we familiarise and establish a powerful link with these entities.

Enslaved like the Salarian in a want not to toil world we are removing ourselves away from the duties which brought out and highlighted the scope of sensory experiences which once titillatingly aroused the faculties which made us conscious of our ‘physical being’ of this world along with our emotional responsibility to “display, show and exert” some form of empathetic compassion towards it.

And yet the urges to evoke sentimentalism are irrevocably being stripped from our very essence as more and more of our humanity gets flushed with each and every technological revolution which pegs us ever closer to pegging the “God Gap”.

Why should we care? so long as our desires are being met and our consumption keeps on chugging away why do we need to care about the environment that suffered to meet our greed err I mean need, the Indian or native whose ecosystem was destroyed on our account, the people slaving away in dehumanising positions to make us feel like little princes and princesses and our growing indifference towards a world being painfully trashed by our insatiable appetites. Placing all others second while we sell our soul for the Midas “touch” only to find ourselves, if we still can, pining for the loss of the Happy Shirt, which was never on our backs to begin with anyway.

For in spite of the feelings of shame that accompanied the realisation of our nudity after our expulsion from God’s Shangri La the truth is that we as a species tend to have our sentiments clouded when we bask ourselves in overly indulging in the material.

As Maslows hierarchy of needs theory would have us believe, once our basic emotional and physical needs have been obligated supplementary “possessions” do not greatly augment our “life satisfaction. Yes, owning a car does make my life easier but it is not” critical” to my needs. I could just as easily walk, ride a bike, catch a bus or carpool if I suddenly woke up one morning and found myself ‘carless’.

While the symbolic smart, savvy and suggestive Dr Jekyll human being commits himself to the cleansing of human body from insufferable injustices it is Mr Hyde who reminds us that in spite of our bold and noble intentions we can be the makers of our own unfortunate undoing and misfortune. A noteworthy reminder of how our scientific surge can lead us towards another anthropogenic Tower of Babel travesty.

Is the shift towards being conceived of as biological deities worth another tumultuous tumble from grace? Actualising our unnecessary “wants” while seriously depriving ourselves of our most critical physiological and sentimental needs which often come by way of the “expressive” relationship which we have with sensory body that is allowed to indulge in communication via contact. What happens when are no longer gifted the birth right to feel and what will be the consequences for us if we generate machines that feel too much? Will they get sick of us taking them for suckers of servitude? What will be our destiny if the power of a hug becomes obsolete?

As we train ourselves to further remove ourselves from a corporeal attachment by way of controlling our breathing in pursuits such as yoga we slowly wobble our way waywardly down towards disregarding the value and importance which physical sustenance has for our individual and collective societal wellbeing.

The power of physical contact is that it not only serves to remind us of our own ‘concretely solid’ existence but also serves to allow us to realise the aliveness of other sentient beings. In a philosophically reassuring manner, it tells us that we are not alone in this world and that if we have joys and pains there are most certainly others whom can relate to what it is like to being human and fabulously flawed in so many wondrous ways. It affirms the notion that to seek to transcend the idea of man as animal and mind over body will not necessarily transcend us on to a plateau alongside God nor bring us any greater self-satisfaction. To deny the body is to deny accepting our humanity and the lessons and splendour which derive from contact. Meditation can do wonders for the human mind-set but equal powers of evocative sensual stirring can also be induced by the awe of engaging with the physical natural splendour of being alive and taking a “hands on “attitude to embracing and sampling the delights of the “real” touchably wonderful world.

In our ever increasingly Salarian world where we are waited upon by ever greater masses of “robots” taking away the physical acts which we once undertook to ensure our sustenance even the most intimate acts which brought us the greatest joys in life are transformed into the taboo by a society which fears social proximity. As in the symbolic Salarian setting people never mingle in the same room together preferring instead to conduct all “meetings” by way of a holographic telepresence. Is this where the Information Age is planning to lead us? Even that most personal and passionate of human encounters the sexual engagement is debased by the Salarians as something that should be controlled by way of scientific birthing rooms. What is presented to us in this world is an idea where one may look but where one may certainly not feel the touch.

Yet, this denigration of the importance of touch collides like an existential wave with what we seek to obtain from life. Beyond self-gratification I would argue that lovemaking enlightens us towards the “aliveness” of us. What procreation and childbearing awaken us to is the idea that we are not alone in the world and that healthy physical relationships with other “living beings” brings us great joy (by way of romance, support and the creation of a family). As spectacular as our tech evolves to be, there are some affiliations with our other flesh and blood brothers and sisters which no machine, no matter how perfect they may be, can ever replace.

In our rising culture of mechanised culture, I worry that even that old dog of machismo is suffering with the waning of parents enlisting their boys to take up contact sports. Whilst these activities can be brutal, they are perhaps one of the few socially acceptable ways for men to experience another man’s being.

Perhaps the punchline of Asimov’s work is delivered in the form of the detective sent from Earth to explain that most abhorrent of human physical acts which is the ‘violence’ we often display historically towards one another. The irony that he unearths is that ‘the murder of another Salarian’ is not the product of another Salarian but rather of a loose wired robot. Far from simply being a Frankenstein themed termination of a tale which dwells on the dangers of putting our faith into potential mechanical monsters Asimov points to a greater fear. A fear that humans (represented by the indifferent Salarians) have begun to stop feeling or caring at all like those perfect people who only lived up till the prime years of their lives in The Time Machine before they were culled. Are we grooming ourselves to become sheep or docile cattle beasts?

But perhaps the most important hidden message lies in the detective and the troubled world which he himself has come from. For on his Earth, people stopped communicating long ago fearful of facing others electing instead to live out their lives underground out of sight from the presence of all others. The point being that if we felt that the Salaria were antisocial than the Earthling and his species have proven themselves to be the “Ultimate Agoraphobes”.

In effect, Salaria may symbolise our Earth at present while the Earth in the novel represents the dark future ahead for all of us if we forget to reach out and touch one another once in a while. It’s still feasible to redeem ourselves. The power is both in your hands and mine.

Image by Almacan

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