Look at Your Hands: Computing, Embodiment, and the iPad

January 28, 2010
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Less than minutes after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad yesterday, users inundated Twitter and Facebook with references to a MadTV sketch from 2007 and a host of messages that openly critiqued Apple’s ridiculous name for the device.  While many users noted the possible erasure of women from the naming of the iPad (and dare we say the design process), this flash resurgence of a humorous and satirical technofeminism drew attention back to connections between computing technologies, corporealities, and body politics.  I can only imagine the wry grin on Donna Haraway’s face.

While much of yesterday’s Internet conversation centered on whether the iPad is a game changer for TV, gaming, publishing, and future of ebooks, I want to address the potentially unnerving aspects of how Apple constructed the user yesterday and point out that while Apple may be a global company, its users are definitely not.

Hands touch.  As countless advertisements for the iPod, iPhone, and now iPad illustrate, part of the pleasure we derive from these devices is in the way that our hands glide across the screen, scroll through menus, and navigate interfaces with a sweep of our digits.  As we move farther and farther into an era of ubiquitous computing and gestural interfaces, we need to think about what the implications of hands, touch, and the haptic might be for users and for how industries imagine and construct tech users.

Apple wants us to take touch for granted.  The demo mostly shows the hands of white male users engaging with the device.  True, there is a shot or two of a woman sitting beside a man using the iPad, but the demo is dominated by the voices of white male experts on the design process and images of the hands of middle-class white male users in casual dress.

Of course, the politics of touch are never as transparent as Apple wants us to believe. Women, LGBT, and citizens victimized by the material consequences of the ideology of whiteness have long known that. Years ago in my masters program a fellow student asked why Marlon Riggs’ in Tongues Untied chooses to highlight close up shots of overtly masculine hands (in terms of musculature, size, and strength).  I’ve always assumed that Riggs wants the spectator to be unable to deny that these hands belong to black gay men who use their hands to touch other black gay men.  Looking at my own admittedly androgynous/nondescript hands (I invite you to look at your hands here and contemplate how they are gendered), I understand that Riggs wants to tie the visual properties of hands to their uses.

At the same time that hands are marked by the politics of touch, hands are connected to  the self consciousness or unconsciousness of touch.  As Dan Savage notes in The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Get Pregnant, “For same-sex couples, taking a lover’s hand is almost never an unself-conscious choice.  You have to think about where you are, whether you’re safe, and you have to look.”  Whether public, semi-public, or private, Savage notes the ways in which some of us find it hard to touch without thinking even as Apple (and other firms) potentially privatize touch and seek to make touch unremarkable.

Josh Bernoff points out that new devices are increasingly splintering the Internet into what may become an increasing number of walled gardens policed by what Walter Mossberg referred to years ago as the “Soviet ministries” of wireless Internet and telephony.  The rise of the Splinternet affects not only the conventions of design and the openness of the Internet’s infrastructure but also calls attention to the fact that the placement of new devices in a small number of global hands increasingly breaks up America and the world into ever finer niches.  If web design aesthetics have been dominated by Anglo-American discourses of professionalization and quality and the whitefacing of mainstream interface design, we must ask ourselves: are the futures of ubiquitous and gestural computing white handed?



One Response to “ Look at Your Hands: Computing, Embodiment, and the iPad ”

  1. Lindsay H. Garrison on January 29, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    GREAT post, Ben. Thanks for this.