On Tapping with Thumbs

Tapping on screens ain’t so fancy. It’s pretty darn video-gamish. Something I’d never thought would ever help me in life. I used to lament the waste of muscular strength. My parents, I’m sure, did too. Nothing is worse than sitting in a spine-curved-cross-legged hump on the ground with the reflective gaze of the TV and the small but composed and sometimes erratic thumb-mashing moments. I am reminded of the odd and erratic twitches of my dog’s feet while he sleeps on his side, as if he were sort of padding on the ground and slowly getting the whole of his legs into it until he wakes up in a confusion that I probably delight in a little too much.

There is no real need, at least not yet, to relinquish the quite romantic aura around pen/pencil and paper. The word “Moleskine” sounds much more elegant than “Lenovo Thinkpad” or even the trendy “Macbook,” both with those comforting tool words in them, now rendered to comfortable metaphors. Images and renderings of fountain pens and notebooks and even quills are still used in graphics detailing events that have to do with writing, even prestigious awards. One cannot imagine using a scythe as an emblem for a tractor company.

Handwriting is still valued as an extension of the person, even if you have terrible handwriting. There is often an allure to being the only one that is able to read it. There is a certain mystique to that. Then we have all the tangible things that go with the physicality of it. And then the history of it all. The aura behind it.

Compare this with the thumb-oriented tapping of glass screens, and you have three weird but important inventions colliding. One, you have the computer processor. A small one. The other is glass, used throughout the ages for ever more creative things. And then you have evolutionary thumb, that is helped humans grasp, in more ways than one, many things both physically and mentally.

If I put a picture of a man doodling or writing in a nice journal and then have that same man in another picture immersed in the light of a phone or tablet, one is going to come off as more hardworking, more romantic, and more thoughtful than the other, and you know which achieved such prestige. It is a product of single-purpose. Notebooks are mostly for doing one thing, thinking and putting that down on paper. Maybe doodling too, but science has looked kindly upon that as a deep-thinking tool as well. Smartphones and tablets are for doing so much more, and it is a flaw of humans that we mostly use things for procrastinating. The picture of the person looking at a phone or tablet might as well be lounging with that night TV glaze, reaching for a huge popcorn bowl perched on the stomach. The phone is the uber swiss army knife now, and mostly people assume the knife, amongst all the other options, is used the most. And we all know what that knife is.

Autocorrect has been around for some years, yet the bane of it has not died. Observe your own tapping behavior: if you look at the words as they appear like you would on a computer monitor, you are clutch. Probably the few. But, if you look at the letters as they are enlarged by your skin hitting glass, you are of the “non-touch typing” kind. If you were on a computer keyboard, you would be pitied, harassed, and given that speech of the accomplished touch-typist about how easy it is to learn. Perhaps you would be encourage to Google Mavis Beacon and find out together that it no longer exists and maybe have a slow discussion about the death of cultural icons that we have loved but forgotten about.

And autocorrect is still something we struggle with. I suspect it’s the difficulty of our evolutionarily awesome thumbs reacting to ubiquitous smooth and non-touch-feeling letters. If someone could invent some sort of immaterial bumps on the “F” and “J” key like on a real keyboard, it might make it all the more easier. Or we could just practice more. This is one of those arguments that I worry shows my age and crotchetiness although I want to be better at such tapping.

Whenever I go into an Apple store, I wonder at the seemingly awkwardness of all the employees typing on their iPads. Do they write in a shorthand, omitting the rules of grammar, or are they showing off what we will be doing when tablets and all that become ubiquitous? I have asked them how they feel about it, and they shrug, as if to either say, “Yeah, it’s easy,” or “I can’t tell you it’s unwieldy because I work here.”

And what do we make of these new-fangled styluses? Is this the answer to cumbersome digital annotating and note-taking? Although there has been a now famous study on the benefits of handwriting notes, I suspect one can train to do note-taking with typing with the same benefits. But annotating with a pen is still pretty exact and wonderful. Just not reliably searchable yet. Then again, the thumb-tapping world has encroached upon this pretty well.

Most designs work when it’s simple and intuitive. Pen and paper is fairly straightforward. Here is something you can make permanent marks with and here is the thing that is easily marked upon and carried and durable. And one can’t get more simple than letters to press on a screen. Although, we have to learn how to navigate whatever digital structure someone has created for our use instead of using our own analog template that we have formed from childhood with paper and writing utensil. I suspect this is a flimsy argument though as QWERTY keyboarding layouts are probably less complicated than learning to draw all the symbols that make up the English language.

But all this tapping and stylus writing and keyboarding and actual writing might be supplanted by voice. I want to say that this can’t be. The whole world would be louder if we talked to our devices all the time. But dictation is enjoyed by some. Carl Sagan was a famous dictator. Or are we going to do air-typing in some sort of hologram or VR sort of situation? Or will the future chips in our mind write down what our brain purposely thinks. How cool to channel the voice in our head, the one that takes a conscious effort to create.

There are tons of artists that make handwriting elegant in the age of typing and in the age of computer typing. Paul Auster likes the “skrit” of the words going on the page. Neil Gaimen likes the way slowing down manages his prose. Just Google search authors who still write in longhand. There are a surprising amount of them: John Le Carre, Emily St. John Mandel, Joe Hill, Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Tan, and you can find more.

But where are the tapping writers? There are writing programs on the phone though. I’m not sure I’ve met many people who have written longform stuff with them. I suspect there are more if we include a Bluetooth connection to a keyboard. Maybe when we get some writers out there who can make tapping stylish or romantic, we will start looking at phones differently. It’s bound to happen. It sure did happen with typing, and it probably happened when we stopped etching things in stone. Now there is a form of writing that will slow you down and make you think real good before you put words down on something sturdy and permanent.

Still, people are proud of their pocket notebooks. There is a real or, at least what I think, myth that the smartphone is the problem of our attention spans. People use pocket notebooks to get away from that. Touching the phone is anathema to productivity as if it were a drink of alcohol during the workday. It seems odd to avoid it all together instead of adapting. It’s the way the world is going. We can’t ostrich ourselves and expect lives to get better when it’s all about our will to work. Procrastination is going to exist no matter what, but there will always be the will to work as well.

And as we stylus our iPads and our Surfaces and our Droids, will anyone that is not in the artistic field use them? I would like to see that market fleshed out and infographed.

We have changed the importance on the way our hands transfer ideas from our heads to our hands and then to some external object. We used to draw in the dirt. Then we used a hammer and a chisel. (Imagine the carpel tunnel for that!) Then styluses for clay. Then the regular forms that we know today. We have had these forms long enough to ascribe some sort of good feeling to them, some sort of romance. No doubt, tapping will be granted the same.