Hard truths, soft seats

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Some­times it takes a sci­en­tific study to re­veal the ob­vi­ous. The lat­est dis­cov­ery — that touch in­flu­ences how we per­ceive things — is some­thing like the warn­ing on a steam­ing cup of cof­fee.

Just as ev­ery­one knows that spilling hot liq­uid on one’s lap will pro­duce a burn­ing sen­sa­tion, ev­ery­one knows that tac­tile sen­sa­tions con­vey in­for­ma­tion about the ob­ject or per­son be­ing touched. The ques­tion is: How do we in­ter­pret that in­for­ma­tion? And what ac­tions might we take in re­sponse?

Joshua M. Ack­er­man at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Technology sought to an­swer those ques­tions through a se­ries of psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­per­i­ments. He con­cluded that an ob­ject’s tex­ture, hard­ness andweight in­flu­ence our judg­ments and de­ci­sions.

Again, the ob­vi­ous: Weight con­veys im­por­tance (“weighty is­sues”) and hard­ness is as­so­ci­ated with rigid­ity. At last we un­der­stand the church pew.

De­spite the fore­gone­ness of these find­ings, the im­pli­ca­tions are sig­nif­i­cant. Howwe lit­er­ally feel things can in­flu­ence ev­ery­thing from our choices when vot­ing to spend­ing money and in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers.

In one ex­per­i­ment, for ex­am­ple, Ack­er­man gave 54 vol­un­teers clip­boards with a job ap­pli­cant’s re­sume at­tached. Those hold­ing the heav­ier clip­boards rated the can­di­date more highly, de­duc­ing that the ap­pli­cant was more se­ri­ous.

In an­other ex­per­i­ment, vol­un­teers were asked to com­plete a puz­zle­with pieces thatwere ei­ther smooth or sand­pa­per rough, af­ter­which they read a tran­script of a so­cial en­counter. Guesswho in­ter­preted the in­ter­ac­tion as­more ad­ver­sar­ial? This rough in­ter­pre­ta­tion also af­fected sub­se­quent de­ci­sion-mak­ing, with the sand­pa­per group more in­clined to­ward tough ne­go­ti­a­tion.

Ap­par­ently, we don’t have to touch things on­ly­with our hands to get a feel for some­thing. Our pos­te­ri­ors are equally re­cep­tive to hard­soft­mes­sag­ing. Hence the chair ex­per­i­ment, in which sub­jectswere asked tomake of­fers on a car. The deal­er­would refuse the first of­fer and a sec­ond of­fer im­me­di­ately fol­lowed.

Those sit­ting on hard chairs­made lower sec­ond of­fers than those sit­ting on softer chairs.

Wemight ex­trap­o­late to our hearts’ con­tent, but it seem­s­wise that thosewish­ing to pre­serve their virtue in the dat­ing­world­might avoid the down cush­ion. And­why not­make thoseUnited Na­tions chairs a lit­tle com­fier? Mightwe be­gin ex­port­ing Barcaloungers to the Mid­dle East?

Such mus­ings led my me­an­der­ing mind to the sub­ject of books and other dead-tree read­ing prod­ucts in the dig­i­tal age. I be­long to that sub­group of in­di­vid­u­als who smell a book be­fore read­ing. (If you are not a book-smeller, we have noth­ing fur­ther to dis­cuss.)

The tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing is also cru­cially im­por­tant to my read­ing plea­sure. Hold­ing a book com­pares to noth­ing else short of a baby’s con­tact with his fa­vorite blankie. Con­sis­tent with Ack­er­man’s find­ings, a hard­back is su­pe­rior to a pa­per­back pre­cisely be­cause it is more solid, weight­ier and, there­fore, more per­ma­nent, more im­por­tant, bet­ter.

But might touch­ing words on a printed page ver­sus read­ing them on­line also be rel­e­vant to one’s com­pre­hen­sion and judg­ment? Are words con­signed to tan­gi­ble and tac­ti­cally re­ward­ing paper more likely to reg­is­ter in our­minds than those that float on hard tablets sub­ject to the blink­er­ing life span of a bat­tery or ex­tin­guish­able by a bolt of light­ning? Ad­mit it: You print out the sto­ries you re­ally want to study. Con­sider, too, howd­if­fer­ent­lywe con­sider a hand­writ­ten let­ter ver­sus an e-mail. Even an e-mail printed out seemsmore im­por­tant— more con­crete— thanwhatwe viewon the screen. It is, alas, more hu­man.

Part of the plea­sure of a real, snail-mail let­ter isn’t only the ef­fort in­volved in putting words to parch­ment, but also the fact of the let­ter writer hav­ing touched the same piece of paper. The ex­change in­volved isn’t only an act of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but one of in­ti­macy.

We are all part of this im­mense dig­i­tal ex­per­i­ment and we know not where it leads. But the tac­tile vac­uum in­her­ent in the medium can’t be in­signif­i­cant.

Off­hand, it seems that our tech­no­log­i­cally en­hanced com­mu­ni­ca­tions, though­mirac­u­lous in terms of speed and ac­cess, have be­come harder and rougher with the medium.

Reach­ing out and touch­ing some­one has be­come eas­ier than ever, but we never re­ally make con­tact.

Hun­kered over our key­boards, tap­ping and click­ing mes­sages to the vast Other, we have be­come a uni­verse of lone rangers keep­ing the com­pany of our own cer­ti­tude.

Per­hap­swhat the­world needs nowis a kinder, softer desk chair.

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