Making Contact: Touch Screens and Antimaterialism

Below is the text of the presentation I gave at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Indianapolis. It’s part of a larger project so I’m hoping this little bit makes some sense. Basically arguing that touch is never knowledge. It is always distant contact as an undoing and unfinishing. Digital touch screen interfaces want us to forget that, but we shouldn’t. Taking my cue here mainly from Jane Bennett, but also from Karen Barad, Henry David Thoreau, and Kathleen Stewart.

I want to begin with this passage, but I am not going to tell you where it’s from until after I read it.

Clear your mind.

Imagine gazing into a pond of crystal clear water.
Picture bright, playful koi swimming through its shallow depths.
So close… Can you touch them?

You run your fingers across the cool surface of the pond.
Water ripples away from your touch.
The koi, disturbed, dart away.
Only to quickly forget and swim close to you once more…

This passage is not an invitation to meditate, though a bit of meditation might do us all good at this point in the conference. It’s also not some amateur poetry I whipped up as an evocative opener. This is really a description of the Koi Pond app for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

This is an image depicting the Koi Pond app during use.

Koi Pond is a simple but beautiful work of interactive media, created by a group of professional game designers in their spare time. (They call themselves the Blimp Pilots. Not a ’90s alt-rock band even though it really sounds like it.) Between the app’s name and the description I just read, you probably get the basic idea. I can customize my pond and select weather effects such as rain and wind. And of course I can interact with the koi by touching “the cool surface of the pond.” The fish skitter away when I make abrupt swipes, but they gather around my touch when I patiently rest my fingertip on the screen.

In the brief time I have today, I am hoping that Koi Pond can serve as a quick but concrete introduction to the account of materiality we find in Vibrant Matter (2010), a book by the political philosopher Jane Bennett. [Quick note: even though Vibrant Matter was published in 2010, I will also be referring to an earlier 2004 article in which she gives an early articulation of her argument.] Bennett’s project is to:

Preferring anthropomorphism over anthropocentrism, the vital materialist does not give much credence to hierarchical “soul vitalism,” the belief that “life is special, but we humans are the most special” (2010, 88). Her term
functions as a reminder to watch for soulness or liveliness apart from human intervention or activity, and to appreciate that liveliness rather than try to fully understand or demystify it. On their own, and on their own terms, things “command attention” and exceed comprehensive explanation (4).

Interacting with Koi Pond is not unlike the way Bennett wants us to encounter things. As we try to touch the fish in Koi Pond, they “dart away.” We are “so close” to them, yet they respond in surprising ways. Likewise, for Bennett and other new materialists, to “touch” the thing is never an appropriation or possession. It’s more like the distant “contact” of picking up the signal of a ship in the dark. A fragile awareness or sensing—a proximity that produces not knowledge but rather the ability to be responsive to things. Barad’s word for this ethics is
response-ability (2012).
Contact with things leaves room for surprise and for a “cultivated, patient, sensory attentiveness to nonhuman forces” (Bennett 2010, xiv). Thoreau is one of Bennett’s philosophical models (or touch-stones, har har) for this attentive contact which leads to a sense of wonder, mystery, and self-other-inquiry.

“Who are we? where are we?” Thoreau asks after making contact with “rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world!”

But Koi Pond, as the leading example in my “vital materialism 101” course, has its limits, since in many ways the app works against thorough sensory attentiveness. There is a different kind of materiality at work in Koi Pond and many similar apps, such as Zen Garden and painting apps like Brushes or Bamboo Paper for the iPad and Android tablets, and for this reason, I am not certain that Bennett’s thing-power is capaciousness enough to approach the specific materiality of digital composing spaces.

Recall that Koi Pond first asks us to “imagine” and “picture” the experience of touching koi. Unintentionally or not, the app’s developers hint at the fact that our contact with these fish is metaphorical or speculative. In the story-world of the app, I extend my finger towards water. But if I reverse my perspective and look out from the other side of the screen—from the koi’s point of view on the technical side—I realize that I am actually touching a sheet of glass, about 10mm thick, and I am not disturbing pond water but electrons as I conduct heat and electricity from my body to the device’s display. Interacting with the koi pond is still touching, but it’s a different kind of touch than what Thoreau experienced in the Maine Woods, or what I experienced during my walk near Lake Michigan last week, which is where I took these photographs. There is also a displacement and distancing at work in the koi pond. I change the electrical properties of the screen every time I touch it: “The [capacitive touch screen] records this change as data, and it uses mathematical algorithms to translate the data into an understanding of where your fingers are” (Wilson). Yet I am distant from that algorithm. I am at a remove from an essential facet of my device’s materiality. In desiring intimacy with screens, we simultaneously desire distance from them as things in the Bennett sense of the word.
intimacy with screens, distance from things
This two-sided desire is what Bill Buxton pinpoints when, during a recent interview, he spoke for his team of user-centered touch screen designers at Microsoft Research (the people behind the Surface tablet). He said
If you're aware there's a computer there, we've failed.
This is a striking statement that reveals the potential of touch screen interfaces to become not only immaterial, as they already are to most users, but worse antimaterial. Stronger than immateriality, antimateriality actively devalues matter. For the vital materialist, antimaterialism is not simply ignorance of matter but an accelerated sweeping-aside or aggressive disposal of matter and its messy complexities. If, as Matt Kirschenbaum (2008) writes, “Computers have been intentionally and deliberately engineered to produce the illusion of immateriality” (135), touch screens amplify this illusion.
image of my shadow on the ground
While Bennett uses the term antimaterial to describe wasteful consumer culture, I’d like to suggest that we carry over the concept to better understand our writing technologies from both sides of the screen. As touch screens become more common and practical amongst students, will we be ready to counter antimaterialism when fingers touch language rather than fish? Now, we do have a precedent for answering this question. A rich and substantial body of scholarship has already attended to materiality of composing practices. Jody Shipka, Christina Haas, T. Hugh Crawford, Anne Wysocki, Jamie Bianco, and others, including the people here with me today, have attended to the materials and materiality of composing practices. They have explored the role that objects—not always or even usually alphabetic writing technologies—play in the composing process, as companions and guides. Materialist composition theory tries to account for the ways that paper, computer code, keyboards, or even ballet shoes shape communicative or expressive acts without defining them. A vital materialist theory of composing may further help us see that the trajectory of effortless interface design, in concert with revenue-generating innovations like Facebook’s “frictionless sharing,” is detrimental to digital writing instruction and invention.

Compared to typing or using a mouse, which both take more or less skill, there is something natural or innate about touch as a mode of interaction. This app simply wouldn’t work on a desktop computer. The mediation of a mouse and keyboard would eliminate the sensation of touching the interface itself, and this sensation of contact is precisely the content of Koi Pond. “Can you click them?” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “… Can you touch them?”
can you click them vs. can you touch them
Psychologists have called touch “a first language,” and studies have shown that touch is the fastest, most accurate, and most instinctive form of communication available to humans—more versatile than both voice and gesture (Chillot). For infants, touch is an essential source of information and even for adults, touching has proven benefits. One study tracked touching amongst NBA players, finding that teammates’ on-court touching, such as chest bumps, high fives, back slaps, was proportionate to wins (Chillot).

Perhaps then it comes as no surprise that not only are touch screens everywhere, but that we also expect them to be everywhere. Some of you might be familiar with this video that went viral in 2011:

In the video, a baby effortlessly operates an iPad while appearing to get frustrated or confused by the static images in a glossy magazine. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to see fellow air travelers attempt a swipe at the TV screens inset into the seat backs. Heck, even a cat will try to bat an iPad—especially when koi are involved. In the koi pond, there is a closeness with the objects of attention, a closeness that we don’t have with the keyboard/mouse. Perhaps there is something in all of us that desires that closeness. If so, the desire is highly marketable. Steve Jobs, for instance, introduced the iPad in January 2010 by saying
it's so much more intimate than a laptop (Steve Jobs quote from 2010 iPad launch)
and the Nabi 2 tablet for children is currently being advertised with the plug:
It's more than a tablet. It's a friend (Nabi 2 tablet TV commercial slogan)
But touch is not only intimate and friendly. It is also threatening, clumsy and… well, icky. There’s a reason Lysol wipes come in easy-dispensing containers, but there’s also a reason that so few research studies exist to illustrate the effects of touch screen tablets on the writing process. Not reading. I am talking about the writing process specifically. For written communication, it seems, touch screens just aren’t suited to the job. A study conducted at IUPUI in 2011 explicitly discusses the difficulty many students face writing on a touch screen. One participant reported that “The [iPad’s] interface and keyboard would slow me down significantly during writing” (Morrone, Gosney, and Engel).

Recently, I exchanged a few emails with Kezia Ruiz, who teaches writing at a community college with a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy. Kezia reports that her students compose papers on iPhones and tablets because these devices are cheaper than laptops. Yet, they struggle with logistical problems like formatting, as you can imagine. In this case, the touch screen hardly seems “more intimate” than the laptop. It adds a layer of material roughness to what is supposed to be a smooth, user-friendly device. Divides of class and access continue to trouble optimistic accounts of digital pedagogy, and Kezia’s observations about her students point to the differences between using a tablet for writing vs. using a tablet for consuming media and playing games. As a side note, these are not unlike the concerns that Audre Lorde raised in the 1980s, when she wrote that

“It is the most secret, requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper” (Lorde 116). Similarly, Kezia describes material circumstances that make a tablet or smart phone a necessary site of composition, despite the drawbacks of these devices for composing.[1]

So on one hand the touch screen offers us intimacy and closeness, which is what we likely wish to achieve in our relationship to readers. But, on the other hand the touch screen distances us from the writing process and prevents students, like those Kezia describes, from “getting serious about writing.” There is indeed something toy-like about the touch screen, and the iPad’s release event in 2010 actually trumpets this as a feature: “You can go through huge quantities of email and it’s just fun because you’re doing it all with your hands,” declares Apple’s VP Phil Schiller during a demo. Like touch itself, interfaces are both intimate and violent. That is the source of their power. Open arms and friendly faces are really compressions of material variance. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the more intimate we become with touch screen tablets and phones, the harder it is to perceive the range of their materiality. The further we fall from these devices’ status as actants with “trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Bennett viii), the harder it is to realize that, when it comes to touch screens,
they feel us as much as we feel them

Works Cited
Barad, Karen. “On Touching—the Inhuman That Therefore I Am.” The Politics of Materiality. Ed. Susanne Witzgall.

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory 32.3 (2004): 347-372. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

—. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2009. Print.

Chillot, Rick. “The Power of Touch.” Psychology Today. 11 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Ion, Florence. “Finger-free phones, full body gesturing, and our “touchscreen” future” Ars Technica. 1 May 2013. Web. 9 Mar. 2014.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Lorde, Audre. “Our Difference Is Our Strength.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Watsonville: Crossing Press, 1984. 315-319. Print.

“An iPad Is a Magazine that Does Not Work.” YouTube. 6 Oct. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Morrone, Anastasia, John Gosney, and Sarah Engel. “Empowering Students and Instructors: Reflections on the Effectiveness of iPads for Teaching and Learning.” EDUCAUSE. Web. 2012.

Ruiz, Kezia. Email communication.

“iPad Introduction – Apple Special Event January 27th, 2010.” YouTube Playlist, Part 1 of 10. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Portable Thoreau. Penguin, 2012. Print.

Wilson, Tracy. “HowStuffWorks ‘The iPod Touch Screen.'” HowStuffWorks. 11 Sept. 2007. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

[1] This point is definitely debatable. During Randall Monty’s CCCC presentation this year, on transnational and border students’ use of mobile technology, members of the audience engaged his class in real time, through the hashtag #RC2PA. I learned that many of his students don’t mind composing on smart phones, and some prefer it. A particularly compelling example is the student who gets stuck on the bridge one day during his cross-border commute from Mexico. The mobile phone then becomes as convenient and important as the scraps of paper Lorde mentions.