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.

why touch matters

Will the rapid expansion of digital touch reconfigure touch and the tactile like optical technologies transformed sight and the visual?

We are on the brink of a sensory revolution: The social sciences and humanities are marked by growing interest in the value of the human senses and the desire to move beyond a vision-centric approach to re-evaluate the roles of other senses (see Howes and Classen, 2014). The emerging field of digital sensory communication, the design of digital devices or environments that newly exploit the senses, in computer science and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) heralds the digital sensory revolution: touch is the vanguard.

The rapid expansion of digital touch: Just two decades ago touch technology could only be found in science fiction books and film, then came technologies (like haptics) and devices (like Phantom) that rely on touch sensation to create the illusion of shape and textures that enable users to feel a variety of virtual objects and control remote manipulators, followed, just over a decade ago, by game consoles using digital touch (remember Nintendo DS?). Today touch is at the center of a re-imagining of digital sensory communication and the dominance of language and visual interfaces is lessening as digital communication increasingly turns to touch features. The rapid expansion in digital touch technologies is set to reconfigure touch and the tactile in significant ways, much as optical technologies transformed sight and the visual (e.g. from the telescope and microscope, the X-ray, photography, film, computer graphics, MRIs to Google Glass). Digital touch technologies are re-shaping what can be touched as well as how it can be touched in ways that are re-configuring ways of knowing and will lead to new forms of knowledge about the world and modes of communication.

What are the social consequences of how touch is being digitally re-mediated?The centrality of touch to both human experience and communication underpins the need to understand the social consequences of how touch is being digitally remediated. Touch is the first sense through which humans apprehend their environment and it is central to our development (Field, 2001). Touch may not be much spoken about yet it provides significant information and experience of the world; it is crucial for tool use and is central to communication: ‘Just as we ‘do things with words’ so, too, we act through touches’ (Finnegan, 2014). Indeed knowing how to infer meaning from touch is considered the very basis of social being. Digital touch matters because it is considered within computer science and HCI to have the most potential for communication and it is the sense most rapidly being developed in the intensification of digital sensory communication. While technologies to synthesize and exploit taste and smell are emerging, their potential for communication is as yet unclear.

What is digital touch now? What potentials and constraints (semiotic features and affordances) of touch are taken up by the new applications on the everyday touch screens in people’s pockets, or the latest (once imaginary) design of 3-D touch interfaces through which people can shake hands and touch across distance. How is touch thought about and configured in the design of still speculative touch technologies –that want us to be able to touch and feel objects (e.g. cells or atoms) at a micron and atomic level or touch based holograms? The contemporary communicational landscapes from which such digital touch technologies are emerging (and contributing to), albeit unevenly, is characterized by changes in how physical distance is thought of and managed. Increased digital augmentation and new material forms of artefacts are also a feature.

How might digital touch evolve? New forms and practices of share-ability and the public availability of information are evolving. New types of touch and sensory interaction are emerging. Digital technologies are shrinking in size and increasing in speed and capacity, and advancements in immersive touch technologies, touch driven hardware, touch and motion sensors are developing rapidly. The possibilities for touch realized by the portability, connectivity, and power of the digital are shifting the ‘gravitational centre’ of communication. The emergent area of digital sensory communication points both to the shifting, contingent, dynamic character of the senses, and the ever-closer relationship between the semiotics of touch, technology and communication. We need to better understand what this means for digital touch communication.

Significant and profound developments of touch require a social analysis:While computer scientists, engineers and HCI designers are pushing the boundaries of touch technologies in creating new sensory devices and experiences, interfaces, devices and environments, their concern is oriented towards technological possibilities and advancements to inform design. Nonetheless their (often tacit) assumptions about touch and the way we use our senses are ‘designed into’ the development of these technologies (Kelly, 2010) and consumer expectations of a technology are set by the framing of its initial use or re-framing its subsequent uses: though of course the user may not take these up in ‘expected’ ways. While this work is significant and exciting it does not set out to address the many social and semiotic questions that the new designs of digital touch raise.

The senses are so intimately tied to our existence and the impact of digital touch developments  so potentially significant and profound  digital touch can not be left to the computer scientists alone.  In short, we need a socially oriented analysis to examine the impact of digital touch on communication. That is the focus of the IN-TOUCH project.

Further reading:

Howes, D. and Classen, C. (2013) Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses In Society, London: Routledge.


What we are reading

img_0623Research on the senses and the body is situated across a number of scholarly traditions. We are reading books and papers from across a range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology of the senses, the arts and socio-linguistics, philosophy, psychology, psycho-physics and neuroscience. These disciplines have, generally, neglected touch, in particular digital touch. There is a (surprisingly) small literature on non-digital touch for communication (e.g. handshakes, hugs or cross-cultural issues related to touch) and touch has received some attention as a ‘compensatory mode’ with reference to sign-systems for the visual and hearing impaired. Much of the work we are coming across sits at the margins or intersections of disciplines. Throughout the life of the project we will provide commentaries and reviews on the books and papers that we are reading.