In February, leaked software code predicted the demise of the back button on the latest version of Google’s Android smartphone. Apple did away with the iPhone’s home button in 2017. LG’s latest handset allows users to control their devices without touching them at all. Now, we scroll, swipe, and tap. Soon, we may never again need to hit a button on our phones.
Vanessa Chang is a lecturer in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts and lead curator with CODAME Art + Tech. She writes, curates, and teaches about the history and philosophy of technology, art, and culture.
Perennial hype surrounds these haptic innovations in touch and motion control technology. Every month, another company announces an interface that tries to make the tech invisible to users. By closing the gap between our bodies and our virtual selves, they aspire to channel our pure, natural expression. Such an interface has long been the holy grail for designers.
In the past decade, many interfaces seeking to make this vision reality have entered the market. From the Wii motion console to Leap Motion, these devices aim to erase the boundary between our bodies and our information. Of these, our smartphones are the most mundane, the most pervasive, and the least visible.
According to Mark Weiser, the father of ubiquitous computing, “a good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, we mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool.”
Yet this view presents a common and crucial fiction: that our bodies remain unchanged by our technologies. Though invisible to our conscious minds, such tools indelibly shape us. Every swipe, every tap, every gesture imprints us with new knowledge. When engineered by Big Tech, these interfaces train our bodies to be more effective cogs within dynamic corporate data systems.
Technologies both define and confine movement. I need only glance up from my laptop at my local café to recognize the sloped postures, intent stares, and typing fingers mirroring my own. Technologies are not simply objects but architectures that organize our bodies in space and time.
New technologies require us to develop new literacies. By developing such literacies, we train our bodies into habitual choreographies. When you learn to write, you are learning not just symbols but the hand motions that turn lines into letters. When you learn to type, you tether your hands to a keyboard, defining your motions in ways that have neurological and physiological effects. Research shows that writing in print, in cursive, or by typing are each associated with distinct brain patterns and significant learning outcomes. How we use our hands profoundly affects how we think.
Digital interfaces exercise similar demands on our bodies. When you first acquire a smartphone, the interface is clunky. Each interaction feels contrived, each gesture an intrusion on your consciousness. But as you rehearse these movements, they become second nature. Like the alphabets your hands write into existence, each of these gestures has assigned meanings. As you achieve fluency with them, these gestures become units of the communication structure you form with your device. When you reach instinctively for your phone, it only takes a few unconscious flicks of your thumb to navigate past the lock screen and into your web browser or messaging app. At the same time, you attain a fluency particular to that brand—when your fingers know an iPhone, it’s pretty jarring to use a friend’s Galaxy.
This cognitive and physical training enables you to express your individuality. Through practice, your handwriting becomes your own, testifying to your identity. Individuals also have unique patterns when interacting with their personal devices. As you type, your fingers play an idiosyncratic composition of keystroke rhythms on your keyboard. Similarly, the swipes and taps on your touchscreen form a living signature of your movement. The emerging field of gesture biometrics uses these movement signatures in security and other applications in interface design.
Yet even as it promises to secure our information, gesture biometrics raises urgent questions about privacy, surveillance, and knowledge. Our fingerprints, our DNA, and now our very movements are structured and archived by private corporations with little transparency. As interfaces gather your data, they simultaneously train you in their use. These motions become unique—and trackable—parts of your identity.
As children, yogis, and dancers intuitively know, our minds are embodied. According to cognitive scientists and philosophers in the field of embodied cognition, many elements of human cognition are shaped by concrete aspects of our bodies. These include the sensorimotor system, the perceptual system, and interactions with our environment. In moving, we come to know the world.
What is the shape of that knowledge? While writing emerges from millennia of cultural and technical evolution, many of our interface gestures are being defined by designers and engineers in Big Tech. When our movements are choreographed by corporate interests, the potential effects on our minds run deep.
Certainly, by training our bodies into these movement systems, we learn new ways of communicating with expansive networks of data, knowledge, and people. But they train us to speak in a limiting language that primes our thoughts and shapes how we act. Your movements translate to a ready-made palette of autocompleted words and actions that structure your encounters with the world. By training our gestures, these interfaces integrate our bodies within much larger systems of corporate knowledge and data, automating us to be better consumers.
However exquisite their design, gestural interfaces like that on the iPhone X are hardly natural or neutral. These devices choreograph many of our daily movements. According to a 2016 study, the average user touches his or her phone 2,617 times a day. With each stroke, our devices become more a part of us—and us of them.