lapses in Thinking By the person i Am, an exhibition of the work of Josephine Pryde, features pictures of young women’s hands with brightly painted nails, touching something—a notebook, pine cone, chest, scarf, or touchscreen. The identically sized and framed photographs are arranged horizontally at eye-level along the gallery walls. There is a train track laid through the gallery, on which runs a miniature, rideable train, complete with miniature graffiti and seats for three or four people.
In one photograph, fingers with bright yellow polish hover just above the gleaming, dark, opaque screen of a mobile phone. As shared participants in the culture of contemporary communication technology, we understand that gesture. She’s about to touch the screen and…
And almost anything. She could be chatting with a friend, paying a bill, playing a game, shopping for handbags or ray guns, reading the Wall Street Journal or a German hardcore punk manifesto.
It’s a smooth, dark, shiny magical item.
A time traveler from another era—from 50 or even 20 years ago—would recognize many of the other items in this show, and be able to imagine what it feels like to touch them. The sweater is soft; the zipper is rough. We’ve been holding pine cones—at least, those of us in temperate areas where pine trees grow—since times so prehistoric we were some other humanoid form.
But the screen is mysterious. The time traveler would have no idea what it is. No idea that it can be a portal to nearly all of human knowledge. No idea that it can connect to hundreds of millions of other people.
We know what the device is, and what it can be, but not what it is doing right now, this specific device at this particular moment. To the observer, the screen is obscure.
The title clues us in a bit: Here Do You Want To.
It’s a conversation caught mid-sentence.
But it’s not a conversation we can hear. No listening in on their plans and jokes and gossip. No seeing who she’s talking to. Everyone is in stealth mode.
Never before have our actions been so mysterious, so impregnable to the curiosity of others.
I used to see you reading a book. I could see the title, see its heft and typeface, see if it looked like a trashy novel or serious tome. I used to see you writing a check. I could see you playing solitaire. I could hear you arguing.
But now I only see you touching the screen.
Books, newspapers, maps, glances, whispers, backgammon boards, secret Penthouse stashes, dramatic breakups, and glances between strangers have all disappeared into the black hole of the pure, smooth, opaque screen.
So what is left to see, to photograph? Hands, holding the screen, poised above it, touching it.
We understand the abstraction of social relationships through tactile metaphors. “Let’s get in touch.” “Are you in contact with her?” “What is your connection with him?”
“Reach out and touch someone” was a telephone company ad campaign
Messaging media drop us into this metaphorical world.
We’re in touch with thousands. Touching stories of rescued puppies circle the globe in a memetic frenzy. Are you out of touch?
Sandwiched between two pictures of hands holding phone screens and poised to type is the photograph of hands holding a pine cone, one finger touching it. The fingernails are painted a sparkly silver,and they mimic in both shape and color the scales of the cone.
The pine cone is also a magical,mysterious object. Given the right circumstances and resources, it holds all the information needed to make a pine tree. But touching the cone will not make this happen.
Touching someone is an act of intimacy. There are photographs in this exhibit that show young women’s hands touching shoulders or chests. Mostly, their own. When, however, the body belongs to someone else the picture is tense with questions of permission, intention, violation. These are touchy subjects.
Touch fabric, sandpaper, skin, pine cones: you feel what is rough, smooth, warm, sticky, bristly, cold, or scaldingly hot. Yet our sense of touch ultimately resides in our minds: stimulate the right neurons and you will feel a phantom fabric.
Touching something can hurt.
But not the touchscreen. It is smooth, cool, and featureless. It feels the same no matter what is on it.
The pictures in this exhibit are of a very specific moment. The bright yellow, orange, and blue nail colors were briefly, brilliantly in style when these pictures were taken. The iPad and the mobile phone were current technologies.
But they are aging rapidly. New models are here, faster and better. Soon these images of phone screens will be archaic, like pictures of a sock hop or of Jane Fonda in full 1980s workout gear, with the leg warmers and headband. There will be the next-generation device and the one after that.
Eventually, we will move beyond touch.
All we will need to do is think.
So, what is left to see, to photograph?
Judith Donath is a designer of innovative social interfaces and the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. She is currently writing a book about how the evolution of honesty has shaped our world.
Funding for NOTES has been provided by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation.