Will Touchscreen Gestures Change The Way We Communicate?

How will the swipe, the slide, the tap and the pinch enter our wider forms of communication?

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Tapping, swiping, pressing, or just pointing at a phone? Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

It was eight in the morning. Ahead of me on the street, someone was waving at me. Or they seemed to be waving at me. It was early and I was still waking up, so I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the normal wave of a “hello” or “I’m over here”. It was stranger than that. I knew it meant something, I even recognised it, but I had no idea what it was.

I went towards the wave. I thought it could be an old friend beckoning me. Then I realised they weren’t waving at all. A trick of the light. They were stood on the street swiping their phone. It was one of those big swipes, from the shoulder down the whole arm, like they were saying “Get out of the way”.

Half relieved and half confused, I walked on, and began to think about how touchscreen gestures might indeed enter the lexicon of hand gestures.

It was only a few years ago that these now ubiquitous gestures were novel and strange. When the first purveyors of tablets first began appearing in our offices and coffee shops, their sweeping hands seemed to foretell of something esoteric, even elitist. I remember friends of mine expressing dislike for these alien bodily inflections, because they seemed to propose a fashion, an inner clique, a club people had paid a handsome price to join.

Now the vast majority of us have joined the same club, so that the touchscreens are assimilating into experience. This is so much the case that it is easy to forget that some items of technology cannot yet be operated by the cue of a hand gesture. See a digital screen these days, and our first instinct is to touch it, realising when the screen sits inert that not every device is “touch-ready”.

The array of gestures that control smartphones and tablets, and now increasingly televisions, car doors and home heating, shrink the divide between the physical and the cyber-real. There is a sort of wizardry involved. If we could go back in time twenty years, to before the age of the wafting hand, then the impression would be close to magical.

Part of the wonder is in the physical ease of the swipe or the scroll. As opposed to the hard labour we put our bodies through at the gym – pegging the weight-pin as high as we can manage – with the touchscreen our prowess tends towards effortlessness. To begin with we all clumsily over-swipe; with experience it becomes the merest flick, the slightest of glissades. The energy expelled is next to nothing: a fraction of a calorie. When the device recognises our movement it multiplies our energies, sending the screen dashing upwards, downwards or sideways in obedience of our feint gesticulation. In this way, the mastery over the machine is confirmed. We even learn a type of nonchalance, like an aristocrat waving away his servant or a Roman emperor disdaining his entertainment.

The same deftness of touch is something you see a lot in video-gamers, those experienced players whose control is such that, with the merest tickle of the handset, extraordinary things happen on the screen. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wrestling with the handset and falling about on the floor.

Technology has always spawned physical gestures that add to our language. Even rudimentary technologies such as cutlery and cups have added to our non-verbal communication. It is child’s play to indicate the act of drinking or eating by the gesture of lifting an invisible cup to your lips or carving up food with an absent knife and fork.

In more modern times, the telephone is a mode of technology that easily translates into a gesture: an extended thumb and little finger raised up to one’s ear. We create a likeness of the device using our hands. Otherwise, the way we use the device gives rise to the gesture, such as with the action of typing on a keyboard. This is a form of mime, appearing over and over again in different statements: Check please! What time is it? Can I have a cigarette? Turn the engine off!

It can’t be long, therefore, before touchscreen gestures develop in the same way and cross over into gestural language. Perhaps the swipe will come to mean “Next please”. Perhaps the two finger splay — especially useful for zooming in on a digital map or photo — will come to mean “Let’s get closer” or “Let’s find out more.” Or its opposite, the finger pinch, will come to stand for “Get me out of here!” or similar.

When such gestures do enter our modes of communication, their meaning will accrue as the technologies embed further into our lives. Usage will evolve as the culture around technology deepens. They will help us to communicate better, even be utilised as rhetorical aids. A study analyzing TED Talks found that the most popular speakers were enthusiastic users of hand gestures, employing an average of about 465 hand gestures each, nearly twice as many as the least popular speakers.

…Or I may have got it completely wrong!

For I can also imagine the trend moving in the other direction, where technology-based gestures begin to fade away as tech progresses towards the evermore discreet and invisible. I’m still getting used to it, but I’m finally realising that the person walking along the street and talking out loud to no-one in particular is in fact making a call (though the phone is nowhere in sight).

In other ways too, technology is beginning to disappear from view. Cars no longer require keys to open or start them, and soon enough, even driving them will seem old-fashioned. Doors have long since opened without any need of a conscious cue. Voice recognition may well lead to the obsolescence of keyboards. Nano-technology is making everything smaller. What, ten years ago, could only exist on a desktop computer, can now fit into the space of a wristwatch. To roll up one’s sleeve and point to one’s wrist, which for decades has meant “What is the time?”, may soon stand-in for any of a thousand different things, or none at all.

With this withdrawal, the gestures I’ve discussed will cease to have a counterpart in real life: they will be simulacrum at first, then they will slowly fall out of usage. Perhaps the culmination of this trend will be total invisibility: technophiles have long been excited by the prospect of invisibility cloaks allowing objects and even entire human beings to achieve apparent transparency. At which point, gestures of every variety will cease to have a point at all.

Christopher P Jones writes about art and culture at his blog.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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