Out of Touch
E-reading isn’t reading.
The child’s first drawing is often of his or her own hand. The footprint may be the first mark we make in the world (for hospital records), but the handprint is the original sign of self-reflection, of understanding ourselves as being in the world. The “handbook” or “manual”—the book that reduces the world into its essential parts, into outline form—is an extension of this art of measurement. It is one of the oldest types of books, dating back to Epictetus’s Enchiridion (second century), a short repository of nuggets of wisdom. In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede taught readers to count to a million on their hands in his On the Reckoning of Time (725). By the 15th and 16th centuries, the measuring hand would become the ultimate sign of our bibliographic relationship to the world, embodied in the new genre of the atlas. In its first incarnation, Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), the entire world could now be held in the reader’s hand. The secular bravura on display in these books, where the reader assumed the divine view, cannot be overstated. By the 17th century, the great age of wars of religion, palmistry, and chiromancy, knowledge of and on the hand would become major sciences. Handbooks seem to proliferate in periods of intellectual and technological uncertainty, much as they are proliferating today.
In the 19th century, readers witnessed the birth of reading as touch, in the form of Louis Braille’s invention of a dot-matrix reading system for the blind in 1824. The method derived from an earlier request by Napoleon for a code that could be read by his soldiers at night in the field without the use of light. Braille’s innovation was to make the dot-matrix representation of letters small enough to correspond to a single touch of the finger. It made reading digital in a very literal sense. By the end of the century, libraries such as the National Library for the Blind in Britain contained over 8,000 volumes in braille, one of many subsequent technologies that aimed to bring reading to the visually impaired.
The turn of the 20th century was a period of numerous experiments with the tactility of reading, both practical and impractical, culminating in the modernist revival of experimental books between the world wars. Books made of sandpaper, cardboard, cheap notebook paper, wood, and even metal were some of the many ways that artists experimented with the touch of reading. In the Russian artist El Lissitzky’s celebrated Architecture of VKhUTEMAS (1927), we see how the disembodied hand of the divine voice from the medieval book has returned, now in the form of the drafting hand of modern science. With the compass needle seemingly woven into the hand’s grip, we can see Lissitzky performing a subtle visual pun. The compass needle is imagined to stand in for the sewing needle, one of the original tools of bookmaking through the sewn binding of the book’s spine. For the Russian avant-garde, the rectilinearity of modernism—the cube, plane, column, grid—was as much born from the book as it was the industrial Gargantua of the new machine age. The handbook was one of modernism’s secret muses.
How can we hold, and hold on to, our digital texts today?
It is not surprising that one of the most canonized pieces of new media art is Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s Text Rain, in which letters rain down a screen and come to rest on projections of viewers’ open hands, one of many new electronic works that take the hand as their conceptual starting point. Text Rain is a potent reminder of the way the digital, at least in English, is named after the hand’s component parts. The book’s handiness is recycled on the screen, only now the circuit that once enclosed us within a larger sense of self and place—that brought us into contact with God, as it did for Augustine—has become purely solipsistic: we see ourselves collecting words with our hands, as we become the new gods. But the words of Text Rain can never truly be grasped by our hands. They are like Platonic forms. They remind us how fragile our hold over words is, that we are only ever godlike.
For Augustine, the book’s closedness—that it could be grasped as a totality—was integral to its success in generating transformative reading experiences. Its closedness was the condition of the reader’s conversion. Digital texts, by contrast, are radically open in their networked form. They are marked by a very weak sense of closure. Indeed, it is often hard to know what to call them (e-books, books, texts, or just documents) without any clear sense of the material differences between them.
But on another level we could say that digital texts don’t so much cancel the book’s closedness as reinscribe it within themselves. Where books are closed on the outside and open on the inside, digital texts put this relationship in reverse order. The openness of the digital text—that it is hard to know where its contours are—contrasts with a performed inaccessibility that also belongs to the networked text. There is always something “out of touch” about the digital. Consider Kenneth Goldsmith’s online Soliloquy (2001), which was initially published as a printed book consisting of transcripts of his digitally recorded speech over the course of a single week. In the online version, words on the screen only appear when touched by the cursor (the electronic finger) and then only one sentence at a time. Every time we move the cursor to illuminate another sentence, the one before it disappears, just as the one after remains invisible. Like a jellyfish, the textual whole slips through our fingers.
This is not to imply that digital texts are not at some level “there.” This would be to fall prey to the “virtual fallacy” (computing culture’s equivalent to Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy”). Digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden. We cannot see, let alone touch, the source of the screen’s letters, the electromagnetically charged “hard drive,” without destroying it. Unlike books, we cannot feel the impressions of the digital. The touch of the page brings us into the world, while the screen keeps us out. All that remains of the hand is a ghostly remnant of its having been there at the time of scanning, like the chance encounters with scanners’ hands from Google Books, accidental traces of the birth of the digital record. The hand no longer points, like the typographic manicule; rather, it covers over or gets in the way. Hand was there, we might say.
But digital texts can be grasped, you will say (I, too, own an e-reader or two). Touch has emerged as one of the most important new fields in contemporary computing. Falling under the heading of “haptics” (like optics for the hand), it encompasses the development of touch screens, virtual handshakes, and surgical training at a distance. But it is also part of a culture of the “handheld,” the way computing has steadily been migrating from large rooms to our desks to our hands. The more screenish our world becomes, the more we try to reinsert tactility back into it.