Humans Like Buttons

typewriterThe word “luddite” is usually used as a criticism. After all, who wants to be accused of being stuck in the past, of not being hip to all the new tools and gadgets? But I think we all have a little technological fuddy-duddiness in us, whether or not we’re willing to own up to that on Facebook.

There was a time when people would “ooh” and “ahh” over touchscreens, because there weren’t very many around. Now, finger-grease-laden, semi-reflective slabs of responsive glass appear everywhere, it seems: in our cars, on our refrigerators and stoves, in our kids’ toys, and, of course, on that ever-present smart device in our pockets and purses. Bacteria everywhere rejoice for all the new colonization opportunities they have!

With this ubiquity has come a familiarity that has made the touchscreen seem as sexy as a rutabaga. Touchscreens are now an expectation. In fact, we’re starting to see a lack of touchscreen as a mark of luxury, in the same way that the weathered look adds to the appeal and price of furniture at Restoration Hardware. I recently read a review of a new Lincoln luxury car that decried the car’s use of a touchscreen for its radio and climate controls as too Ford-like. And I know that I can’t stand the touchscreen in my wife’s minivan. I just want to rotate a dial to find AC/DC on the radio; repeatedly pressing a glowing arrow icon is so un-rock-and-roll.

Bottom line? We humans like dials, buttons, and switches. We are tactile beings.

Tom Hanks wrote very eloquently in this Sunday’s New York Times about his fondness for using a typewriter. He praised the directness of the finger-to-paper interface, how he could control the force with which the ink was stamped into the paper by varying the pressure he applied to the keys. He lauded the permanence of typewritten documents, how their ink becomes one with the fibers of the paper rather than applied as a covering to it. He celebrated, in great detail, the variety of sounds that emanate from a typewriter, how different models elicit different timbres that true connoisseurs can distinguish. And he described typewritten documents as works of art, portraits and stills, each distinct from the other thanks to the capricious waviness of the text lines and the hodgepodge of contrivances used to correct mistakes in the absence of a delete key. He made the typewriter sound sexy, at least much more so than a rutabaga.

Hanks’ ode to storage-shelf technology might appeal to me only because I’m getting old. It’s hard to say whether my luddite longing is something wired into the human code or merely nostalgia run amok. Jeff Bezos may be right when he says that printed newspapers will be merely a boutique item in 20 years. (Curiously, Bezos, the founder of Amazon, just bought the Washington Post yesterday.)  If idle hands are the devil’s play things, fingers damned to an eternity of tapping are his payment.

Sure enough, my fingers will be tapping on glass later to see if anyone has thoughts on this post. It’s hard to carry a teletype machine in your pocket.

 

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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