Are we heading toward touch deprivation and sensory extinction?

The visual dominance within the digital landscape has been associated with the stifling of other senses, and is associated with feelings of detachment and alienation. Some have argued that the digital is now in the throws of a ‘poly-sensory comeback’ (Bacci and Melcher, 2013), a sensory revolution in which touch is the vanguard. Digital touch elicits hyperbolic notions of connectivity and is seen by some as heralding a renaissance of tangibility through the development of haptic and tangible technologies, gestural and whole body interfaces in a previously visual ‘flat’ digital landscape. However, touch as it is digitally mediated also prompts skeptical discourses of concern and loss within the social sciences. The digital is associated with the removal of touch from the material sensory landscape, producing an era of ‘touch-deprivation’ (Field, 2001), ‘sensory impoverishment’ and ‘loss of physicality’ (Bacci and Melcher, 2013), with the ‘chilling concept of sensory extinction’ – the quieting or displacement of the body’s senses (Jones, 2007:30). The digital is seen as a part of social distancing and alienation in which people are comforted by the illusion of ‘relentless connection’ which masks the unsettling of relationships, community, and intimacy leading to ‘a new solitude’ (Turkle, 2011:15).

Echoes of these concerns can be found in debates and histories of touch prior to the digital. Classen in The Deepest Sense (2012), for example, explores the changing social roles of touch and its gradual decline. She writes of the social usage and meanings of touch in Europe in the Middle Ages to seal legal agreements, the physicality of familiar non-sexual relationships, and the practices of touching of religious and museum artefacts. Touch practices that, Classen argues, changed with the onslaught of the plague and other epidemics, the development of industrialization and urbanization, and were epitomized by the (precautionary) fashion of wearing gloves at the turn of the 20th century. She also writes of the tactile opportunities introduced by the development of the department store: with its goods on display available to be touched and felt. The role of touch continues to be a key strand within sensory research in retail and marketing, including the potential of touch in online shopping environments (Krishna, 2010). This historical approach is significant as it shows that how and where touch features in our communicational landscape is socially shaped. The role of touch changes, ebbs and flows in our social communicational landscapes and the digital is one aspect of that social shaping.

Concerns of a digital divide persist; IN-TOUCH will explore the inclusive potentials of digital touch technologies, which challenge rather than reproduce the dominance of language and the different character they bring to the digital divide. These discursive framings and re-framings of the effects of technologies, of which touch technologies are a part, inform the design and use of digital touch for communication. Digital touch technologies and the often contradictory discourses that they are embedded in raise many questions about touch, its semiotic features, its affordances and meaning potentials for digital communication; questions that will be addressed for the first time through this project.


Bacci, F., and Melcher, D. (eds.) (2013) Art and the Senses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Classen, C. (2012) The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch. Urbane: University of Illinois

Field, T. (2003) Touch. Massachusets, USA: MIT press.

Jones, C.A. (ed.) (2007) Sensorium:Embodied Experience, Technology and Art. Massachusets, USA: MIT press.

Krishna, A. (2010) Sensory Marketing. New York: Routledge

Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together. New York: Basic Books.

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