Today we are in touch with just about everyone but, all too rarely, touch each other. I realize that there have long been strong cultural norms imprinted in our identity narratives as to who, when, how, and how often we touch others. Context and relationship are critical factors, inevitably. However, it seems to me that human touch is being both exploited and diminished in our current high tech communicative environment. While endless "touch" apps and devices flood the market, human face-to-face, physical touch seems to be fading from the scene. Or, at least, the scene seems to be changing, as many of us spend far more time with our online friends, whether real or imaginary, than we do with those close at hand.
Take as an extreme example, sex without touching. A quarter-century ago this bizarre idea struck me as a totally improbable fantasy when I saw this scene in Demolition Man, a then newly released flick set in a futuristic science fiction scenario. Certainly it had to be a dystopia! (Especially, since I've had a lifelong crush on Sandra Bullock).
To me it was beyond imagination that a market for this no-touch "safe sex" would be developing in today's world, ultimately aimed at virtual interpersonal snuggling and copulation, beyond just porn. It is both projected and pooh-poohed in this short video interview. It seems inevitable, however, that this paradoxically puritan–hedonist market will be explored and exploited. What comes after haptic virtual-reality?
We are already seeing a kind of allophobia in the behavior of a generation of young people. All too many spend their hours texting and swapping selfies and voice messages on social networks and communication apps, yet increasingly resist being in touch with a live voice on a real person-to-person call. Communicative reluctance is not new, and I suspect most of us have experienced it at one time or another, and not just as awkward teenagers. We too may have used the telephone call, not just for its convenience, but also because of the safety of physical distance that it provided us with.
When virtual teams were a newly developing reality, we taught our trainees that, when a few email exchanges did not resolve an issue or was becoming emotionally charged, that they should pick up the phone where the exchange could be somewhat richer and the personal contact more likely to resolve it. Then, one of my colleagues insisted that the half-life of trust was about 3 months. If you don't meet people face-to-face suspicion and paranoia start to set in. Is this no longer true, or is it. Now, when virtual media are becoming infinitely richer than they were back then, why does being in touch by voice seem so difficult, even perilous to so many. Where does it end? Or, does it?
Don't get me wrong, I really love the fact that I am in contact with friends and family around the world so easily now. I can remember when a letter took three weeks weeks to exchange from abroad and 20 minutes on the phone cost over €90 at today's rate of exchange. However, real togetherness, within various norms of real touch, was taken for granted.
We took virtual communication in stride as it developed, applauding it and ourselves for saving time and effort. But there were losses as well as gains. It seemed good for business. I had a wake-up moment about this a number of years ago when, meeting a colleague at a conference, I simply said, "Hi, how ya' doin', good to see ya," in passing. I took my familiarity with my colleague for granted, as we had been working on a project together and were communicating on a weekly and, sometimes, almost on a daily basis. My colleague was shocked and immediately reminded me that we had not actually seen each other face-to-face for several years, "'Hello how are you?' Is that all I get!? was the disgruntled response.
The importance of touch was certainly enhanced for those of us in the age of the human potential movement. We applauded family therapist Virginia Satir when she evangelically proclaimed, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Hmmm... it's a wonder that I'm still alive these days...
While today I receive lots of virtual hugs attached to emails, I sometimes wonder if they express the desire for closer contact or serve as a palliative for it. With what we are learning about cognitive integrity from today's neurosciences, it feels to me like we are in a cultural mutation going in the wrong direction. we know the danger of our mental frames of substituting for the real world, resulting in stereotypes and our unconscious flow with the metanarratives of commodification, nationalism, and the like.
The tangible is subject to a variety of interpretations, but will the virtual ultimately satisfy our desire for the real or is it destined to become the new reality? Will it eliminate the embarrassing issues of sexual harassment among the high and mighty or simply become the poor persons opiate? Will hackers invade and record and enjoy the benefits of blackmail and ransom? Or, are we in for all the above?