Over the life of the InTouch project (starting in 2016) we have kept our feelers out for when touch hits the news headlines. While each year touch has had always had some exposure in the news, headlines have been infrequent and usually promoted by a study or incidence, for example:
How often you hold your baby actually affects their DNA, study finds
Elton John storms off stage after fan tries to touch him as he sings
At the peak of the #MeToo movement, news headlines on sexual harassment and assault tackled inappropriate and unwanted touch, and consent, including the recent headline:
MeToo founder Tarana Burke condems Joe Biden’s ‘inexcusable’ responses to unwanted touching allegations
Over the past four years the news headlines on touch have fallen along and reproduced a narrative of touchy binary of extremes: we are either not touching enough or touching too much, and in doing so, framed social relationships (in Europe and the USA) to touch as a crisis:
No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch?
What Does It Mean to Be Touch Starved?
These touchy narratives present touch as a shared and uniform experience, which evade the realities of people’s lived experiences of touch. The terrain of touch is nuanced, shaped variously by distinct cultural and familial environments, gender, socio-economic factors (which literally place people in different spatial-proximity to one another), experiences (e.g. abusive physical or sexual events), conditions (e.g. Fibromyalgia), disabilities (e.g. autism spectrum) and so on. Media headlines and the articles beneath them circulate norms of touch (what exactly is the right amount of touching?), the ‘right to touch’ – notable in the media backlash against #MeToo, and shape how we talk about touch by giving us vocabulary (e.g. ‘skin hunger’, ‘touch deprivation’) and metaphors.
The role of the digital in these narratives ping-pongs between it being a problematic substitute for physical ‘real’ social touch to create ‘skype families (e.g. as a consequence of government immigration policy, or custody disputes) and itself being a key source of touch deprivation or, in contrast, it is seen as rescuing us from isolation:
Is technology killing the human touch?
How Tech Has Made Families Closer Than Ever
Touch Headlines during Covid-19
Since March 2020, with the advent of the Covid-19 virus and pandemic, touch has become a regular feature of media headlines. Media responses to the pandemic, and the need of governments to communicate a public health message on the need for vigilant hand-washing and social distancing, have honed attention and importance on the when, who, how and what of how we touch ourselves and one-another. Despite the ways in which Covid-19 has necessarily reshaped our social landscapes of touch, the messages of earlier headlines on touch persist, if amplified or weakened. The importance of touch and its social power are central to this story, alongside the risk of touch and being touched:
Finding Connection and Resilience During the Coronavirus Pandemic
A dire case of ‘skin hunger’ hits hard in self-isolation
Current headlines continue to hold the binary of ‘good’ touch and ‘bad’ touch in tension through a notion of touch in crisis (only this time the war metaphors are out):
Coronavirus Has Killed the Power of Touch. How Do We Reconnect?
Touch ‘at risk’
Other current headlines amplify the sense of touch as something at risk, they engage with a fear of touch deprivation, even touch extinction, which was palpable through pre-Covid headlines:
Touch saved me from loneliness. What will we become without it?
Coronavirus is accelerating a culture of no touching – here’s why that’s a problem
Headlines also re-imagine and project touch into our pasts:
In these scary times a hug would help, but it’s the one thing I cannot have
What’s Your Most Important Memory of Touch?
The problem of negotiating touch, from new greeting rituals to how to negotiate touch intimacy, remains present perhaps more than ever across many of the articles, epitomised by this headline:
How to be intimate during the Covid-19 outbreak
Re-thinking the positive meanings of touch
Whilst acknowledging the complexity of social touch and its meanings for individuals filtered through negative experiences and political senses of the autonomous self, headlines suggest that, at least to some extent and in some contexts, social distancing has flipped the positive meanings of touch. That is, in this moment, not-touching has become caring, and self-touch is made and felt and problematic, with headlines including:
When Keeping Your Distance Is the Best Way to Show You Care
Fist Bumps vs. Handshakes: How COVID-19 Does—and Doesn’t—Spread
To Avoid COVID-19 Coronavirus, How to Stop Touching Your Face
The very real risks of touch in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic have brought the touchy character of our environments and the objects we interact with through touch newly to the fore. We now consider and rank the materials of this shifting tactile terrain differently, the risk of every-day surfaces and objects touched by many. Weighing up the relative risks of touching hard or soft plastic, metal, paper, cloth, all have been made of newly felt. Headlines such as:
COVID-19: What you should know about touching in public places
Is Covid-19 rapidly spreading through petrol pumps?
The riskiest surfaces for coronavirus and how to clean them
Instructions not to touch (e.g. ‘look don’t touch’, Do not touch) are nothing new, but perhaps the headlines suggest a sense of ‘no-touch’ spread and policing:
Asda and Aldi roll out new ‘no touch’ policy in supermarkets amid Covid-19 crisis
Speculation on touch futures
Beyond contemplating the current moment of touch – often with a big dollop of nostalgia, some headlines speculate on touch futures:
Coronavirus etiquette: greeting in the age of social distance
The end of hugs? The coronavirus pandemic could shape social habits for years
Digitally mediated touch
One aspect of this speculation is on how technologies might fit into the ‘post-Covid’ tactile terrain:
Covid-19 gives boost to ‘touchless’ tech in Japan
Covid-19: In the times of ‘touch-me-not’ environment, drones are the new best friends
InTouch will continue to archive and explore the discourses and themes of touch circulated through the media as part of our exploration of the social implications of digitally mediated touch. How will the media representations of the landscape of social touch change after this pandemic? Perhaps a better question, given the socio-economic unevenness of this landscape and pandemic, is whose touch will be seen as affected and how? Will it snap-back to ‘normal’ after six months or a year? What is at risk? What sense of new forms of touch might emerge? How will touch technologies be positioned as lock-down eases and we venture out?
If you have any suggestions for the IN-TOUCH Covid archive, we would love to hear from you! Please tweet us at @IN_TOUCH_UCL