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The History of Virtualizing Touch

From electricity to vibration, haptic technology is changing the relationship between touch and media

From corrective lenses to virtual simulation, humans have long pursued the mediation of the senses in an effort to maximize their visual, auditory, and haptic capacities. The skin’s overlapping roles as both an organ capable of feeling its own right, as well as the structure responsible for holding all of our other organs (and senses) in place, make for fertile experimental ground. In the age of bioengineering and biohacking, touch today remains, quite literally, a sensitive subject.

Archaeologies of Touch, a new book by David Parisi, presents a historical examination of the various scientific and cultural apparati that have defined (and subsequently, redefined) our sense of touch. In addition to analyzing the mediation of touch in medical practice, Parisi also draws upon film theory and design aesthetics to trace the multiple, entangled genealogies of haptics. Parisi finds lineages of human-computer interfaces from early electrical machines used in medicine to wearable smart technologies that not only mimic touch, but also grant access to the World Wide Web.

While information technology maintains its investment in optimization, critics of techno-utopian ideals worry that increased technical touch will come at the expense of the liberal subject: if every body is equipped with a microprocessor, is haptic technology predisposed to churning out a digital proletariat better equipped to process information for capital, rather than individual, interests? Or can flesh also be understood as data, something that can be measured and optimized for the better through haptic interfacing? As a researcher looking at the intersection of digital art, medicine, and information technology, I’m interested in how we can enact haptic communication techniques without reducing human sensation to a data-driven economy.

Allie Mularoni: Generally speaking, the posthuman raises questions regarding sensation and the nature of existing, both of which tend to demarcate the natural from the artificial in our frameworks of understanding (our physical being in the world, what holds our focus, what compels us to create). Because you analyze in depth the difference between tactility and haptics, I’d like to tease out another semantic issue. In locating the human body in electrotactile machine communication in early scientific experiments for both therapeutic purposes (in various shock treatments) and performative applications (like the electrified Venus statue that lured male suitors to an unexpected shock in the 1730s, p. 49), you note the idea of “tangible networks” (p. 48). If we can understand haptics “as a field of knowledge,” how might we categorize the term, “network?” (p. 105). Understanding that “tactile” and “haptic” denote specific underpinnings in touch studies, how can we distinguish ideas of “network” as it relates to our being in the world (i.e., through our understanding of corporeality, ecology, media, and computation)? Can the network itself be touched?

David Parisi: Here I’d like to pick up on your initial use of the network not as a singular, but rather, as plural, which suggests the notion of a multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting networks. This is more in line with my use of the term in Archaeologies of Touch: each tangible network has been comprised of human and nonhuman actors; networks were assembled on an as-needed basis; they frequently lacked stability; and they provided the groundwork for the anticipated construction of new, more advanced and stable networks.

When I introduced the idea of tangible networks, it was as a way to describe the famous proto-telegraphic experiments that Abbé Jean Nollet carried out beginning in the 1740s. In Nollet’s demonstrations, he connected monks and soldiers and anyone else who wanted to become part of an electrical circuit. What fascinates me about these experiments is that they were routinized as a mode of scientific communication — they were a means of multiplying witnesses to the emerging facticity of electricity. But they were also often commercial ventures: the tactile experience of electric shock became a commodity; one could purchase entrance into the network, thereby becoming part of a sensing community that witnessed, at the level of the body and its constitutive nerves and muscles, a new mode of synchronized time and standardized tactile sensations. Accounts of these experiments circulated through networks of scientific discourse, with the expectation being that others in the discourse network would enact the experiments they read about, providing another way to multiply witnesses to scientific fact.

To bring this into conversation with our contemporary moment: your question recalls Stelarc’s “ping body” performances for the mid-nineties, where he enacted the speed of data moving over the internet, visualizing the speed of information transfer by allowing his body to be taken over and choreographed and controlled, with its movements governed by the speed of random pings sent around the internet. But while Stelarc registered the ping body at the kinaesthetic level, for his audience members, the experience was only an audiovisual one, far less of a haptic experience than Nollet’s trials 250 years earlier. So although it can be tempting to craft progressivist narratives about the intensifying takeover of the body by technology, placing these moments in conversation with one another suggests that weaving bodies into electrical networks is not new to the era of digital media.

With the ongoing deployment of haptics in connected smartphones, game controllers, and wearables, the sort of tangible encounter with the internet that Stelarc experienced is becoming a routine experience condition of networked culture: we react to tactile pings sent out to us, both by remote bodies and by algorithms programmed to alert us to content our past traffic indicates might be relevant to as networked consumers. I don’t think it’s quite right to suggest, at this point, that “the” network has attained a sort of material tangibility — where we can touch it — but we are in a moment where it touches us. The “it” in this case is also not a singular entity. Rather, these tactile signifiers (patterns of vibration, produced by the tiny spinning motors housed in wearables and smartphones) are messages sent by corporate actors, carefully engineered to demand our immediate attention.

All that said, there’s been an immense amount of effort invested in the project of giving data circulated through the internet a materiality and a tangibility, going at least as far back as Logitech’s iFeel Mouse, developed in partnership with Immersion Corporation way back in 2001. iFeel and devices like it attempted to render websites touchable by giving them vibration feedback. The crucial question here concerns transparency: is the device intended to make the network itself touchable, or is it imagined as a conduit for touching through the network (as with the Tactile Internet project), loaded up with an ideology that claims media merely serve as passive and neutral extensions of the human senses?

AM: I appreciate you bringing up Stelarc, and I do agree that the piece follows this long-held human curiosity in electricity — it seems to almost caricaturize the technologized body. As you discuss in your book, engineering psychologists were “intent on transforming [touch] into a communication sense” (p. 208-9). While these efforts were originally meant to serve those with sense impairment, “vibrotactile communication” has led to the commercialization and monetization of touch. These various genealogies of haptics have manifested in everything from bionic prostheses to smartphones to immersive virtual reality art. What are your thoughts on these new “values” of touch — the various touching between humans and machines that provide health benefits, that help people “stay connected,” or that entertain?

DP: While Robert Gault’s experiments with his Teletactor in the twenties were meant to serve those with hearing impairments, much of the research on touch communication in the middle decades of the twentieth century aimed at opening up the tactile channel to a range of communicative purposes: for military communication, for the relaying of stock market data through a discrete communicative channel, and for rousing the human receiver from resting, through forcible and powerful tactile cues of such strength that they could not be ignored. One system designed by military researchers in the sixties, for instance, imagined a user with electrodes hooked up to their arm, connected to a global communication system. When they needed to be alerted of an event, the electrodes would deliver a shock powerful enough to capture their attention, but not so strong that it would prove painful or injurious.

So I would say that articulating a new “value” for touch is not itself a new project: the current efforts at remaking touch as a communicative sense exist in continuity with the work of those in the mid-twentieth century. Establishing this continuity, for me, is more exciting than declaring the establishment of a new approach to touch, because it allows us to understand how touch’s use value was reimagined in response to the challenge of audiovisual media posed to humans as information processors far in advance of the rise of digital media. “Information overload,” as you point out below, is not a new problem — and using touch to compensate for it is a strategy with roots in the Cold War and even before.

That said, digital communications technologies go a long way toward helping us realize those imagined and invented uses for touch: many of the systems developed in the fifties, sixties, and seventies never managed to make it out of the labs where they were designed and refined. The Taptic Engine in the Apple Watch and more experimental but still consumer-oriented products like the Moment wearable relay complex messages through the skin of wrist with a precision and persistence impossible a few decades earlier. Clearly, with the domestication of these devices, something has shifted. But we are still a long way from realizing the imaginary of a totalizing vision for a robust haptic system imagined in the sixties, one where high-fidelity touch interfaces allow us to feel as if we’re fully embodied in virtual environments.

For me, what makes touch tech so challenging and fascinating is its unfolding through capitalist technoscience: while touch often gets situated as fertile ground for seeding a revolutionary subjectivity, with haptic interfaces and haptic media, touch is increasingly articulated in instrumental and instrumentalizable terms: ordered as a resource that can be exploited, described as a set of discrete subcomponents that can be precisely targeted by complex instruments, and framed as a power that can be unleashed with the design of new media for touch.

AM: Different cultures and professions, like medicine, seem to be invested in upholding particular ideals of a “normal” body. How can we approach various conditions and disorders as a spectrum of normal rather than simply distinguishing abled bodies from disabled bodies? Is this something worth considering when more and more people interact with digital prostheses?

DP: This is a very good point — interfaces certainly embody and express ideals about what constitutes a normal body, encoding the parameters of what Mark Paterson has described as the “normate sensorium” in their design. But we have seen some efforts to push back against this — the AbleGamers foundation, for example, has pressured game developers to move toward inclusive design that accommodates a range of different bodies, not reduced to the binaries of abled/disabled and normal/abnormal, and Microsoft just announced its Adaptive Controller for the Xbox One. Design from the experiential ground up seems like the best solution to this challenge — but such a practice is resource-intensive, and requires designers to accommodate their products to a range of different bodies that may not always be present in the testing phase.

At the same time, attempts to correct or mitigate disability have proven generative for haptic media throughout their history: although Archaeologies of Touch describes the emergence of a normative and hegemonic model of touch, this normative model depended on soliciting the experiences of disabled and non-normate bodies. As I hint at in the preface, there’s another story to be told around haptics that makes disability its central focus, emphasizing the role of sensory substitution technologies like the Teletactor and Tactile Television in driving the history of haptics (in her work on the Norbert Weiner’s hearing glove — a later instantiation of the Teletactor — Mara Mills provides a model for this approach). In addition to work on prosthetics designs, research on haptic human-computer interfaces in the nineties was also driven forward by attempts to correct hand tremors and gait. There’s an immense value in pushing back on the abled/disabled binary here, in part because the labeling of bodies in binary terms provided a problematic framework for generating knowledge about bodies and technologies used to “correct” and normalize their functioning.

AM: Keeping with the theme of medicine as an epistemological approach to the body, I want to bring in your remark that touch is being instrumentalized as a kind of resource. When discussing coin-operated electrotherapy, which began to shift the power relations in patient-operator roles, you note that “cautionary tales advised patients against using electrotherapeutic instruments without the aid of a trained operator, warning potential users that they would fall prey to the temptation to overadminister current” (p. 92). Here, I’m reminded of the humanist bias to maintain the human’s position as superior operator. How do we decide when mechanical touch, specifically when it’s deployed by nonhuman agents, is too much or ineffective within medical practice and labor economics?

DP: As much as we embrace a narrative of automation as dehumanizing, the removal of humans as intermediaries in the history of technology can often prove empowering to the users of technology. I am thinking here especially about the automation of the camera by the photobooth, where the elimination of the camera operator from the photographic process inspired subjects to enter into a more playful relationship with the camera. Electrotherapy seems to have followed a similar trajectory: electrotherapists valorized their role in the therapeutic process, but this involved claims of mastery and dominance over patients, and the expression of racialized and gendered ideas about pain thresholds and tolerances. The automation of electrotherapy by arcade machines and home kits undid some of this — and while it certainly meant the loss of jobs for electrotherapists, I don’t think this is a career whose passing we necessarily have to mourn.

AM: You talk a bit about Ernst Weber’s contribution to haptics. As you mention, Weber was an anatomist who was concerned with the skin’s capacity to distinguish tactile stimuli at different points on the body. Interestingly, his attempt to standardize touch purposefully avoided variables of pain, which would, as you mention, lead to “comfort maximization” in haptic interfacing. You write, “As it hindered touch’s discriminatory faculty, pain had no place in this instrumentalized conception of tactility” (p. 130). Contrastingly, Elaine Scarry purports that the body’s capacity to feel pain is responsible for “the making and unmaking of the world.” I’d like to consider some of the themes in The Body in Pain (1985) through the kind of sensation mapping you present in Archaeologies of Touch. I wonder what you think about obsenstibly unmediated touch, specifically the kind of embodied sensation one experiences from mental trauma. How can we categorize or historicize inner agony such as depression, anxiety, heartache, or loss? Are any of these conditions impacted by digital technologies?

DP: I greatly appreciate that you bring up Scarry here. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that pain and touch necessarily have to be treated as separate systems — even in the psychological literature, they are often treated together. My point about Weber was intended to show how the study of touch through experimentation allowed Weber to cleave touch off from pain. Their close interlinking had historically been taken as part of the reason touch could not function as a sense capable of rational judgement (for instance Frances Herring’s “Touch: The Neglected Sense”), and by segregating them, Weber instantiated a tradition of experimental research aimed at quantifying pain alongside touch, using dedicated sets of instruments and methods. Regarding the common sensibility: I think it’s important to remember that it meant different things for different thinkers, particularly in the nineteenth century (see Daniel Heller-Roazen’s The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation, 2007).

And it’s also worth bearing in mind that early psychophysics researchers did try to quantify emotional and affective states, but they proved far more evasive to measurement than sensory states. In terms of how categories/conditions like depression, heartache, anxiety, and loss are impacted by digital technologies, I don’t doubt that they are, but at the same time, this isn’t something I’ve researched specifically, or something that my research has much bearing on. Certainly, some have claimed that digital technologies increase feelings of anxiety and depression and isolation (see Sherry Turkle & Jean Twenge, for example), but I don’t find these claims very persuasive, because they seem to want to fix a normative model of correct and healthy media usage that suspiciously matches the one they came of age with. I think it’s inarguable, though, that digital technologies give us new modes of capturing and operationalizing these experiential and affective categories.

To return to Scarry though: much of the “unmediated” touch that she describes is mediated by some sort of accepted and practiced technique. The infliction of pain through stress positions, where the body of the tortured is turned against them, thereby becoming an instrument of the torturer, develops through practiced and codified repetition. It’s part of what makes her narrative so impactful: she calls attention to the technicity of pain infliction, to the blunt routinization and precision of turning one’s body against them.

AM: Your mention of Sherry Turkle makes me think of her essay, “Whither Psychoanalysis in Computer Culture.” I’m thinking particularly in terms of Freudian melancholy and the tendency to fetishize lost objects in virtual environments. For example, is a person less likely to move on if a deceased loved one’s data is preserved indefinitely? (I’m reminded of the Black Mirror episode in which a woman data-mines her husband back from the dead.) In online avatars and in games like Second Life, where people are free to create alternate identities, are users predisposed to freezing in time by secluding themselves in virtuality — or does this online engagement offer a new form of connectivity, another way to reach out and touch one another? How do we touch something that isn’t real? How do we negotiate the rift between the real and the symbolic?

DP: That episode of Black Mirror is incredibly powerful. Part of its impact derives, I think, from the physicality of her husband’s preservation: it’s the combination of the fidelity to his physical and emotional existence that makes his preservation seem so visceral; if he were just a disembodied chatbot, I don’t think we’d see quite the same level of engagement. A similar concept is at work in Westworld, which problematizes the gap between the human and the nonhuman, and raises questions about our ethical obligations toward nonhuman forms of life. In Westworld, the physical embodiment of the artificial intelligences is intended to give us pause, prompting us to reconsider the way that we are already treating the artificial intelligences that exist within computer generated worlds (a question Tron put on the table back in 1982!). So clearly, as much as the shell containing the AI might be just plastic and metal, giving it a human form shifts the terrain of the conversation.

With regard to Second Life, it adds an interesting wrinkle when we remember that the program began as an environment to test a VR/haptic interface hardware system being developed by Linden Lab (“the rig”) — due to a combination of factors, the software emerged as a more compelling technology than the hardware, which is how we ended up with the virtual community that it eventually grew into.

But it is interesting to consider what would have happened if Linden developed both the hardware and the software simultaneously: maybe digital objects and digital avatars wouldn’t seem quite so ephemeral if we could touch and hold them, if they had an apparent tactile materiality in spite of existing only in the memory of a computer.

One of the ways I have been thinking about haptics lately is as a response to the ephemerality of digital objects: as we see more of the physical world converted to digital form, and as we “consume” digital objects (here I have in mind the massive, $50 billion economy around virtual goods in video games — loot boxes, skins, stickers, stadiums, clothes, weapons, collectibles, and power-ups), I suspect we’ll see haptics become part of a countertrend back to rematerialization, where touch technology will be used to give virtual objects an apparent physicality.

AM: Westworld is such a great example of this surging cultural interest in sensation and the various agents and actors capable of perceiving it. On Weber’s Two-Point Threshold Experiments, developed to measure the skin’s ability to locate tactile stimuli, you reveal the following: “Concern over what he understood as fatigue in his subjects’ senses prompted Weber to suggest that the experiments be carried out ‘at a time when our attention is not distracted by too many other sensations, i.e. particularly in the evening or at night.’ Constant exertion, he believed, left the senses bereft of energy, resulting in the subject’s inability to discriminate between stimuli that they would have perceived as distinct under optimal conditions…” (p. 120). Drawing parallels between Weber’s concern and Tim Wu’s recent publication, The Attention Merchants (2016), it’s fair to say that overstimulation isn’t necessarily a new problem (Erasmus said in the 1500s “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?”). How do ubiquitous computing and technologically-mediated touch pose new challenges? Is it a new form of overstimulation?

DP: As you point out, these thresholds seem arbitrary and culturally/historically relative. If anything, I would suggest that technologically-mediated touch tech is framed as a strategic response to a purported understimulation of touch and overstimulation of vision and hearing: the marketing literature for haptic interfaces claims that we don’t have enough touch stimulation, because computers, while they may require us to touch them, do not touch us back. These marketers suggest that we have been living with a worsening crisis of touch perpetuated by the rise of audiovisual media, with haptics providing a means of injecting touch back into everyday life through its digital mediation.

Their solution to a problem purportedly brought on by media technology is more media technology — the mediatization of a sense that has traditionally been thought of as hostile to extension. Touch becomes a way to offload data off of the overcrowded and exhausted channels of seeing and hearing onto a channel comparatively bereft of data, with touch now operationalized in the lab as having very specific information processing capacities.

AM: It’s interesting that you mention the “crisis of touch.” I recently read an article published by the Guardian, titled, “No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch?” One of the researchers, Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute, is concerned with the absence of touch, the ramifications of which include “paediatric pain syndromes, such as irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia, previously common only in adults.” How can we determine the best practices of touch, or what a model of healthy touch looks like? I’m especially curious if we might be able to learn from non-human organisms. This might be a longshot, but can we learn from mycelial networks, the system of fungi that allows plants to communicate with one another, without electrical interference, to regenerate and recover from disease? Is there a relation between the power of touch and different organic networks?

DP: Yes — the piece by Paula Cocozza. Cocozza sets up a crisis-response framework, with the emergence of a “touch industry” comprised of “professional cuddlers” situated as a reaction to a perceived touch deficit in Europe, the U.S., and Australia. But the piece takes for granted this assertion that we’re living through a crisis of touch, and Field’s comments hang the blame around the neck of digital media: they’re based on a sort of nostalgic imaginary of touch that divorces touch from power and social context. Based on her anecdotal observations of people at the airport touching their screens rather than each other, she feeds into a scapegoating of digital technologies that distracts us from the social conditions surrounding their use. But Field’s decrying of a crisis of touch is part of a humanist tradition of research on touch that began with Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. Like Field, Montagu lamented the overall decline of touching in Western culture, arguing that to move away from touch is to move away from what makes us human. But the curious thing is that touch has frequently been identified as a sense that evolutionarily predates humans (see Gault’s writings on the Teletactor for example): rather than being what makes us human, the sense of touch and the tactile mode of experiencing our environment links us to nonhuman and even nonanimal forms of life (I really appreciate your example of mycelial networks—it reminds us that our models of sensation and communication are rigidly anthropocentric). And Montagu’s complaint, of course, predates the development of digital media, which makes Field’s mission “to document how little touch there is and how much distraction by social media” seem to be nostalgic for a moment that may have never existed.

As to the questions of modeling best practices of touch, and what a healthy model of touch would look like — and I would disagree with the suggestion that there’s some sort of crisis of not enough touch, especially when we’re just now coming to terms with a crisis of too much (unwanted) touch. Suggesting that there’s a crisis of not enough touch implies that people should be touching each other more often, and without a wholesale cultural rethinking and retraining around consent, this isn’t something that I’d advocate for, because it will also involve the imposition of a normative model onto unwilling subjects. Maybe the mycelial networks you mention provide a model for “healthy touch” — but I’m not convinced that there’s a proper psychobiological “golden mean” of touching that balances between too much and not enough touch.

AM: Finally, how might we imagine the dream you pose in the introduction, “of connecting bodies seamlessly through networks, and about the recurrent efforts to unleash a touch transformed by technoscience as a positive, productive, and liberatory force”?

DP: In some ways, I think the dream of haptics is an impossible but seductive one, not so much because touch has proven unwieldy, but more because it is based on impossible imaginaries (and I’m borrowing a bit from the formulation John Durham Peters provides here): of technology without politics, of a stable biological body that exists outside of history, and of a touch that can be transmitted through media without being fundamentally reshaped and altered by this transmission. A clear sensory politics underpins the practice of haptic interface design: there’s a sort of evangelizing character in the community that attracts people to the study of touch and touch technology, a belief that touch interfaces provide a superior mode of interacting with information, not just for functional purposes, but also because they believe that audiovisualist interfacing is insufficiently human. And part of what I’m trying to do is push the ideological underpinnings of this field to the surface a bit, by forcing a confrontation with the way that capitalist technoscience, informed by the instrumental imperative to transform humans into more efficient information processors, has reconstructed touch through haptics. I’m suspicious, obviously, of any claims that haptics can prove liberatory, or of claims that there’s a liberatory politics inherent to touch, lurking around waiting to be unleashed by digital media engineers.

If you are in the US or Canada, you can purchase a copy of David Parisi’s Archaeologies of Touch here (use promo code MN82600 for a 30% discount). For those in the EU, the book can be purchased here (promo code CSF18TOUCH).

For further reading, please visit the New Media & Society Haptic Media Studies issue co-edited by David Parisi, Mark Paterson, and Jason E. Archer at this link.

Allie Mularoni is a graduate student in the Media Studies MA program at The New School, whose research investigates the convergence of creative and medical praxis.

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