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Interview by Carlin Wing
Carlin Wing: Archaeologies of Touch opens with an examination of contemporary haptic human-computer interfaces, then quickly jumps backward to situate haptic technology in a linear chronology that begins with electrical machines in the 1740s, and moves forward by examining the way institutional actors in the fields of psychology, engineering, computer science, and advertising address touch. With so much material to cover, it feels like a boundless topic—how did you decide what you were going to focus on? Why did you organize the book in a linear chronology?
David Parisi: Although haptics technologies are commonly associated with contemporary digital media, and virtual reality in particular, research into computer haptics began in the late 1960s (though it wasn’t called ‘Computer Haptics’ until the 1990s), as a response to Ivan Sutherland’s prompting in his 1965 address “The Ultimate Display.” And the term haptics itself retains a neologistic connotation, in spite of having a history that reaches back at least psychophysics & psychology research in the nineteenth century. So part of what I wanted to do is show that, in spite of the tone of novelty perpetually enveloping digital touch, the technology has a material and discursive history that predates the 21st century. The book’s narrative arc is organized around five successive phases of interfacing, beginning with touch’s productive interfacing with electrical machines in the 1740s, and concluding with touch’s expression in recent attempts to market digital touch technologies like vibration-enabled touchscreens. I emphasize the continuity between each phase, showing how specific instruments and experiments and were passed down from one generation of researchers to the next.
Drawing boundaries around this archive of technologized touch—deciding what was on its inside and outside—was a tricky and fraught process, especially since touch itself is such a slippery and often contested category, once you begin to push on it a bit. Ultimately I decided to try to write the history of a hegemonic and normative model of touch, one that emerged piecemeal from the exertions of researchers across three centuries, and is currently being embedded in the design of digital media interfaces, as engineers attempt to fix and standardize haptic vocabularies that will be used to communicate messages through touch (think of vibrating alerts sent from your phone or smartwatch).
Of course, any history of a concept so vast and elusive will necessarily be incomplete. But I hope that this will at least provide the groundwork for deeper investigations of the relationship between touch and media—even if it turns out there are glaring and problematic omissions from the archive that Archaeologies of Touch constructs, at least it provides a point of departure for future studies of haptic media. When I started this project (well over a decade ago!), no such foundation existed, outside of the piecemeal and fragmentary histories contained in psychology textbooks. So my hope is that this book saves anyone doing empirical or theoretical work on haptics some intellectual legwork.
Carlin Wing: Given the way your own experience motivated your attentiveness to this history of touch, how did you approach the task of representing the many individuals that appear in these archaeologies of touch? What kinds of decisions did you make regarding how to write people in the context of a book whose primary characters are the techniques, objects, and apparatuses?
David Parisi: Your point about my story centering on objects and machines over people is spot-on. There are some actual humans who take center stage in the book, but you’re right that I downplay their individual biographies to focus instead on the things they built, and the ideas they invested in their objects. My method here was strongly influenced by Hand-Georg Rheinberger’s notion of experimental systems, which de-emphasizes the importance of any one individual or any one individual experiment, in favor of locating experiments in broader networks of scientific research around a given problem. This mainly involves a question of where and how we assign agency: by focusing on techniques, objects, and apparatuses, I wanted to get at a lineage of research and thinking on touch that transcends and outlives any one individual researcher. By doing so, we can see how particular experiments and experimental techniques concretize, attaining hegemonic status in the way that touch is studied. The two-point threshold tests that Ernst Heinrich Weber first carried out in the 1820s, for example, have outlived Weber by nearly two centuries, becoming foundational for the scientific study of sensory perception later in the nineteenth century, and then carried out again by experimenters in the middle decades of the twentieth century as they tried to figure out the optimal placement of the motors and electrodes used to transmit language through touch.
But, following Rheinberger, it is not the experiment itself that matters; instead, we should focus on how the experiment constructs and implies future experimentation in the system, how it shifts the border between the known and the unknown, or between the manageable and the unmanageable. The corollary of the experiment is the instrument—and here too we consistently see similar instruments employed and adapted for the strategic stimulation of touch across the five phases of interfacing I examine in the book. This sequencing hopefully has the effect of showing how contemporary haptic interfaces, in spite of the often-repeated claims about their revolutionizing novelty, are part of a longer tradition of attempts to transform touch through technology, many of which were met with similar enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that most of these techs failed to make it much beyond the lab’s walls.
Carlin Wing: The notion of training runs through many of the chapters and is perhaps most apparent in the chapter on the Tongue of the Skin where you talk about different attempts to train people to receive patterned symbolic communication through touch. How do you think about training, specifically training the senses? Did your thinking about training change as a result of writing the book?
David Parisi: The question of training is interesting to me in these different historical periods because it highlights the context-specific disciplining of the senses in general, and of touch in particular. For instance, early psychophysics and sensory psychology research aimed at uncovering the absolute limits of human sensory perception. In order to get at these boundaries, experimenters had to hone their abilities to perceive machine-generated stimuli—they had to become so-called ‘good observers’ through repeated drilling and training in carefully-constructed laboratory conditions. Graduate school involved not only repeatedly carrying out the foundational experiments of the new discipline, but also being the subject of these same of experiments, in order to cultivate their perceptual abilities. Becoming part of the discipline entailed a bodily and sensory regimentation, in addition to gaining a particular intellectual disposition. Deborah Coon’s Standardizing the Subject and Rand Evans work on the history of psychological instruments were both helpful for me here.
In contrast, contemporary interface design aims at building machines that will be appealing to wide swaths of users hailed as consumers—so they’re much more interested in understanding how the putatively average person experiences their products. This means they’re constructing normative models of sensation and perception, and embedding those models in interfaces through the standardization control and feedback mechanisms. In practical terms, this means that someone who wants to decode the complex messages sent through the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine has to train themselves to be sensitive to an artificial vibratory language black boxed in the design process.
As a result of writing this book, I’m far more attuned to the sort of materiality and hard calculability involved in training processes. Going into the project, I was already thinking about media as involves processes of bodily and sensory discipline (in part as a result of McLuhan, and in part due to this Marcel Mauss essay I know you and I share an enthusiasm for). But examining lab experiments, and reading accounts of gradual refinements to particular instruments and models, gave me a strong appreciation for the microphysics of training processes—the material circulations that underpin abstractions of the human body and its senses.
Carlin Wing: This book is full of compelling and charismatic objects and apparatuses — an electrified venus, Leyden jars, electric eels, electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum, aesthesiometric compasses, The Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches, the Teletactor (a mechanical ear for the skin), the Vibratese apparatus, Tactile Televisions, the Argonne Remote Manipulator, the CyberGrasp and CyberForce interfaces, force feedback joysticks and game controllers, touchscreens. What do you make of the charisma of these strange objects and apparatuses? What do you want us to understand about what compelled the effort that went into make these variously extraordinary, oppressive, curious, therapeutic, banal, and magical things and about what compels you and us to consider them in turn?
David Parisi: This is a really productive and important question, because it pushes a degree of reflexivity about this project—essentially asking about the subjective aesthetic preferences of the research expressed through the selection of objects. Part of what I was trying to do especially with the images throughout the book is highlight a continuity to the technoscientific imaginary around touch—a sort of cold, mechanical, and efficient modeling of touch through these instruments. This works as a counter to our typical imagination of touch as warm, as human, and as irreducible to mechanization and electrification. And it shows us that touch, like seeing and hearing, can have its own dedicated set of machines for knowing and revealing it, for capturing, storing, transmitting, and playing back its data.
But at the same time, these so-called strange objects are the embodiment of a devotion to and passion for touch—a technoscientific imagination around touch motivated by the humanist hope that life might be made better through the technological enhancement of touch (a sense often ideated as the most human of all the senses). They are captivating objects because of their ambiguity: because they were not only technical objects, but also objects that had cultural lives, inspiring wonder and bewilderment. They were used to inflict pain, both on experimenters themselves and on their experimental subjects (the Leyden jar and the electric eel); they were thought to heal and revivify (the electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum); they promised to give hearing back to the deaf and sight back to the blind (the Teletactor and tactile television); they offered to reveal tactile system’s arcane secrets (aesthesiometric compasses and the Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches); they assured us that we could reach out and feel distant objects (the Argonne Remote Manipulator), and caress objects or people that existed only in the memory of a computer (the CyberGrasp). I hope these objects spark that same complex fire of emotions in my readers that they light for me each time I try to think through and with them.