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A Point of View: Does technology make people touch each other less?

human hands touching Image copyright Thinkstock

The sensation of human touch is disappearing in a computer age, and with it part of human nature, says the novelist Will Self.

In his 1957 science fiction novel The Naked Sun Isaac Asimov invented a world, Solaria, in which a tiny, fixed population of humans live out their days on enormous estates, waited upon by scores of robots. The Solarians' social ambience is something like that of a 19th Century Russian novel. A scrupulous attention to social mores and rankings is only enhanced by this bizarre fact - delivered from material want or the requirement for sex (all procreation is scientifically managed in "birthing centres" a la Brave New World), they have evolved a severe taboo against physical proximity of any kind. Indeed, the Solarians never even occupy the same room together, let alone touch, and any intercourse between them takes the form of "holographic telepresence", a sort of 3D conference call. So, instead of visiting one another, the Solarians indulge in what they term "viewing".

Like all the best science fiction, Asimov's was as much about his own era as any remote future. Writing in the late 1950s, he saw all around him the consequences of automated production and distribution combined with telecommunications - namely, a steady decline in the number and duration of the personal contacts an individual needed to make during any given day. But if the Eisenhower years betokened an emergent world of shiny and machined efficiency, decoupled from the visceral vagaries of human biology, then how much more like Solaria has our own world become in the intervening half-century?

True, we're hardly delivered from the necessity to work by automation - although many of us have the suspicion that our work, such as it is, is fundamentally divorced from the real basis of our sustenance, and moreover, a largely hidden infrastructure and a cheese-paring division of labour is obviously what underlies our lifestyle of consumption and inanition. We may not have robot servants, but we do rely on robot assembly lines and cybernetic traffic control systems to save us from the messy business of getting people to make and do for us, while in lieu of holographic telepresence, we instead spend a great deal of our time communicating via the internet. A huge number of our human interactions are now facilitated by a technology called capacitive sensing, which measures the relative electrical conductivity of the human body - some ancient philosophers might see this as confirming their view that all animate matter contains a "vital spark".

However, what the touch screen, the automatic door, online shopping, and even the Bangladeshi sweatshop piece-worker who made our trousers are depriving us of is the exercise of our very sense of touch itself, and in particular they are relieving us of the need to touch other people - we may not be Solarians yet, but we're getting there. I by no means wish to return to the sort of hierarchical society in which a gentleman or lady began the day by being dressed by his valet or her maid. Neither do I wish to feel a warm teat throbbing in my palm before I can have milk for my morning coffee. Nonetheless, I surely can't be alone in feeling a nostalgia for a more touchy-feely world, or rather one in which what we touch and feel is warm and yielding rather than smooth and at best, tepid.


"Noli me tangere"

Image copyright ALAMY
  • Latin for "touch me not" or "don't tread on me" - words spoken, according to John's Gospel, by Christ to Mary Magdalene when she recognised him after his resurrection
  • Scene is the subject of many religious paintings by artists such as Correggio, Titian and Fra Angelico (pictured)

Mass industrialised society developed, in part, by inculcating us with rigid taboos - not only "noli me tangere", but also "don't talk to me, jostle me, or even acknowledge my physical presence". We spend our days surrounded by busily tapping fingers and hotly beating hearts, yet remain coolly inviolate, confirmed in our sense of being irredeemably apart from the rest of life. In part, our culture's rejection of touching others can be seen as a legacy of the mind/body dualism implicit in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. After all, our possession of consciousness - this immaterial "mind stuff" - elevates us above mere brute creation, and puts us on a par with the angels and God himself. Yet there is another way of apprehending one's existence besides consciousness, and that's our internal sense of our own organism's striving into being. It's surely no accident that meditational techniques designed with the express aim of transcending the conscious mind are often centred on repetitive breathing, for, only by actualising this bodily awareness can we abandon the delusion that, in essence, we're immaterial.

Image copyright Getty Images

Of course, there is a form of touch that we privilege above all others. Not only do we privilege it, but we've developed on the one hand the most exalted conception of this form of human contact, and on the other the most debased. But if we step back from regarding our sexuality either through the rosy window of romanticism, or the stained screen of pornography, what we find is that sex is only the most comprehensive way we have of realising how someone else experiences their own being. The cliched view of sexual repletion is that it makes us "feel alive", but really what it does is to make us feel someone else's aliveness - sex tells us, definitively and incontrovertibly, that we're not alone.

Not that sex is the only socially-sanctioned form of touch. There are others, but they, in common with sex, are hedged round with all sorts of rules and proscriptions. When we play contact sports we're allowed to touch other people, but only in certain specified ways. Despite this, contact sport is enormously important to us, in particular to the male of the species. I sometimes wonder if what a rugby forward is really seeking, as he pushes his head between the straining haunches of his teammates, is not some abstract notion of excellence or achievement, but the very concrete experience of another man's being. Women who undergo childbirth, surely, whatever their other beliefs about the world, cannot help grasping at some level that their own existence - and that of their child - is fundamentally corporeal, and the psychological model known as attachment theory validates this with its assertion that all infants have the necessity - encoded by evolution - for their carer's touch.

Image copyright Getty Images

It is in our tactile relationship with our own children - and others we are allowed intimacy with - that we experience this primordial sense of attachment - a binding of our own physical being into the relentless striving-to-be of all embodied life. During the perennial furores about breast-feeding in public it's often struck me that what troubles those who object to this practice (which, inasmuch as anything is natural at all, is about as natural as anything gets), is not that it incites their sexual prudery, but that it affronts their idea of themselves as fundamentally disembodied and distinct from the rest of brute creation.

In Asimov's sci-fi novel, the Solarians' untouched lifestyle is interrupted by a form of contact that most (although by no means all) societies profess to abhor - violent murder. Sent from Earth to investigate the crime, homicide detective Elijah Baley discovers that in fact no human touch was bestowed. Rather, one of the Solarians' myriad robot helpers has been monkeyed with, and its hardwired morality circuits bypassed so that it's able to take a human life. Asimov's tale might be taken as a straightforwardly Frankensteinian fable - be careful of those labour-saving devices, they may turn on us, their creators. But while Asimov could never be accused of great subtlety in his writing, there is a relevant back-story here, one that reveals another level of concern. Elijah Baley has come to Solaria from an Earth whose inhabitants, 3,000 years in the future, have retreated beneath its surface and taken to living in enormous steel caverns, with the result that the detective - in common with many other Earthlings - is chronically agoraphobic.


Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

  • US science-fiction author and professor of biochemistry
  • Wrote or edited an estimated 500 books. His most famous works include the epic Foundation series of novels
  • Also devised the famous "three laws of robotics" in his Robot short stories

Just as Asimov's depiction of the Solarians contains an admonition, warning us against substituting automated services and electronic communication for the messily emotional realities of human touch, so his characterisation of the Earthlings leads us to contemplate the fear we engender in ourselves when we exploit, control and ultimately withdraw from the natural world that gave birth to us. It's not too late for us to reach out and touch somebody - unfortunately it is for us to reach out and touch something on our machine-dominated planet that hasn't already been touched.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT or listen on BBC iPlayer

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