The longing to not only experience flowers on a touchpad, but to touch them with your fingertips in a garden is growing. Because an increasing number of experiences in our livesare beingtransferred to areas where sensory perceptions are limited, moments that appeal to all the senses are becoming more and more important.
After all, high touch is only the other side of high tech, according to John Naisbitt in his 1982 classic work “Megatrends”.
One is tempted to think back to a time when surfaces were really surfaces. But that’s not really the case, despite what comes up on Google: After all, if you search for “surfaces” online today, you will almost only find surfaces of the virtual variety: computerised surfaces. Yet manufacturers know all too well about the power of touch and are therefore always seeking to bring an element of touch to the haptic experience. However, most computer-based technology can hardly be said to convey haptic experiences. They reward our touch with audio-visual impulses, change the scene of the action so to say, because they are unable to come to grips with the sense of touch – at least not yet. While touch is usually experienced very intensively, with a whole flood of associations triggered in our brains, touching a computer screen still remains strangely empty. Something seems to be undeniably lost when we put buttons and screens between us and the rest of the world.
But that is only the way it appears to be. Because interesting gaps do not remain vacant for long. In fact, not only engineers, designers and psychologists have rediscovered the power of touch. Automobile manufacturers were some of the first to do so, not coincidentally at around the same time as the boom in computing happened. Early in the 1990s, they began designing the interiors of cars with much more emphasis on multi-sensory experience. They optimised how a steering wheel feels, how a door shuts and which coating is best for the knob on the radio in line with the individual requirements of the brand: feeling good comes from feeling and touching. Today, the haptic experience of a new mobile phone model is given just as much design thought as its software. Flip switches, sofas and perfume bottles have all long since been optimised to achieve a positive haptic experience as an implicit quality feature.
The surface, which appears to just about be disappearing from the scene, has begun to actually resurface elsewhere. Despite depriving it of stimuli for a great deal of the time, our sense of touch appears to not be so easy to suppress. Which is why we in fact create escapes for ourselves – some big, some small.
The fact that we rarely read text on printed paper nowadays, no longer turn the pages with our fingers, touch the coarse paper with our fingertips or smell the printer’s ink, doesn’t mean that we are now reading less or worse. Yet something does seem to be missing for us here. And it is exciting how ambivalent we as consumers react to the bi-sensory limitations provided by digital media. After all, the most popular e-book accessory, namely the cover, turns the reading device back into a book. At least that’s the idea. Well-made covers are often as expensive as the reading devices themselves, and ensure that we can open and close our readers as we would a real book. Many covers make our reading devices feel like an actual book with a soft leather binding. We therefore succeed in connecting both worlds, driven less by nostalgia than by sensory necessity: Our sense of touch always ensures that it gets its money’s worth.
The clues provided by how we spend our free time are even more revealing. Because we, often voluntarily, reduce our existence down to hearing and seeing through computer-based work during the week, we specifically strive to balance this out at the weekend. After the sensory drought of the working week, we stimulate our two square meters of skin however we can – with massages, oils, bathing, reiki or tango, because it involves movement and touches all the senses, making us human again: “We are revived”.
We love intense sensory stimuli, so we make chefs into global superstars, because what they do gets all our senses going – feeling, smelling, hearing, seeing and tasting. Many modern heroes are people who have the almost embarrassing luck of being able to enjoy their multi-sensory reality at will. Not like us. We celebrate slow food whenever we can, because sensory perception needs time and tranquillity. And we drink more good wine than ever before because each one tastes, smells and looks different – and the differences form an incredible playing field for all our senses at once.
When we listen to our music on iPods or mobile phones, the digital sound is so perfect that it almost squeezes the life out of the music. But our senses have found a replacement for this too: Not only are live concerts more popular than ever before, record players have found their way back into the living room. Vinyl allows us to touch music: We can take the record out of the sleeve, look at it and feel it, and then put it on the turntable. It goes without saying that we gladly take digital photographs on cameras and phones, but Polaroid cameras are also experiencing a revival. This is not only a visual experience; it is also a sensory ritual of movements, rubbing, feeling, looking and hearing. It is direct and delivers an object we can hold, pass around and show to other. The experience is multi-sensory and complete – and the results don’t just disappear into the depths of a hard disk.
And another bit of macro-evidence – we are also travelling more frequently and more passionately than ever before, despite our ability to now look at the most beautiful places on earth in perfectly made HD videos and images. Our desire for sensory experiences cannot be satisfied through media: We want to smell the exotic aromas of the streets in Mumbai, eat with our hands in Ethiopia, feel the softness of the water in the Dead Sea or the finest Chinese silk against our skin. Tourism is the greatest of our little escapes from the digital world. One of the great growth industries of modern times. Our senses demand our activity: high touch on all levels. We are driven to go hiking in untouched mountain landscapes, chop wood in front of a lonely cabin in Canada, feel the rain on our faces while walking in the woods or invest more time in our garden, just so we can pass the fig tree every day and feel if the fruit is ripe.
Perhaps sensory deprivation is simply not possible in the form that many people believe. Our senses seem to always find a way of satisfying their needs. That is why high touch is just as big a business as high tech. Satisfying our desire for sensory experiences is obviously very important to all of us. Especially when we notice that our senses are otherwise restricted.
We could probably devote even more attention to our sense of touch. It is the most important tool we have for experiencing our surroundings. And not only at the weekend. So feed your sense of touch – it will reward you many times over.