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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


LAUWRENS, Jenni. Keep in touch! Embodied perception, touch and remote digital communication. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2021, vol.61, n.2, pp.391-411. ISSN 2224-7912.

When COVID-19 rapidly spread across the globe in 2020, and people were either encouraged or forced to self-isolate and stay at home, for many, the only way to "keep in touch" with family, friends, peers and colleagues was via virtual environments. The use of digital platforms such as Skype, WhatsApp, Google Meets, Zoom, House Party, and Microsoft Teams, among others, quickly became the only way in which to "reach out" to others. As the physical boundaries of touch were being redrawn and aggressively (re)policed in public spaces, and, as "keeping in contact" with loved ones and colleagues was increasingly operationalised through digital technologies, traffic on the digital superhighway increased significantly. Although many people had already travelled on that road in the past, activities usually conducted in face-to-face environments quickly migrated to the digital realm. At the same time, through strategic advertising campaigns, many mobile network companies in South Africa promised that their networks provided opportunities for seamlessly sustaining both leisure and work activities online by using catchphrases that highlighted "being together" and "staying connected" while on the Internet. Thus, through strategic marketing strategies, togetherness and connection were quickly presented as the basis of a new form of "keeping in touch" with others. With reference to theorists on touch and digital communication, as well as visual examples of advertisements, prototypes and artworks, in this article I investigate the following questions that arise from this situation. What forms of touch are afforded by digital communication technologies? How is our embodied experience of sociality being transformed by digital networked communication? To what extent might the digital screen be considered an interface for embodied interaction? In short, this article explores how embodied perception and touch are presented, performed and experienced in remote digital environments, and draws some conclusions about the future of touch in the digital landscape. While it is certainly not a novel observation that digital technologies assist in establishing and maintaining intimate social relationships at a physical distance, it does appear that this situation has been accelerated by the social impact of the pandemic. Carlos Velasco and Marianna Obrist (2020) argue that "the pandemic appears to be changing the game entirely". While many people had never imagined going online to attend a funeral, a birthday party, an exhibition opening, or to take a game drive, these, and many other social activities, have become part of what is widely being referred to in the media as "the new normal". Despite the inequalities inherent in the digital communication economy, especially in developing countries such as South Africa, the increased digitisation of human experience and the seamless integration of offline and digital worlds into "a sort of mixed reality" (Velasco & Obrist 2020) appears to have taken place. In her analysis of haptic modes of visuality, Martine Beugnet (2013) calls for an interrogation of what embodied perception means in light of the rise of new technologies. This interrogation is needed at a time when we are experiencing a material and technological crisis of the flesh and different - often polarised - opinions regarding the possibility of embodied experience within the realm of the digital. This is because the digital is often regarded as entirely immaterial (see Coleman 2007). Revisiting embodied perception is thus an important extension of these debates as is the question of whether or not digital communication technologies satisfy our human desire for connection. In this article, therefore, critical theories on digitality are discussed in relation to a selection of advertisements, prototypes, images on social media platforms and artworks to show that, while touch has been actively sought out in digital environments, for many it remains an elusive experience. I begin by exploring the significance and boundaries of touch in social life. I immediately try to put my finger on the significance of touch for being human, and briefly demonstrate the cultural construction of acceptable (and unacceptable) forms (and sites) of touch. I show that while the boundaries of touch have been strictly redrawn owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic, our tactile senses have never been free from some or other form of ideological policing. That touch is multiple or "manifold," as Mark Paterson (2007:3) puts it, assists in giving shape to the discussions that follow. Thereafter, I reflect on Edward Casey's (2013) and Sherry Turkle's (2015) ruminations on how technologically mediated conversations impede deep dialogical engagements with others, ultimately leading to an inability, or reduced capacity, for empathy. The work of two South African artists, Jenna Burchell and Magdel Fourie (now Van Rooyen), who have reflected on this very dilemma powerfully and insightfully illustrate these arguments. Their works hint at the promise, but ultimate failure, of remote digital communication technologies to facilitate a deep or intimate feeling of presence between families or loved ones in online communication. In the next section, I track the history of developments in haptic technologies which have attempted to facilitate the sense of "presence" or "copresence" in digital environments. Thereafter, I extend this discussion into the present-day to trace more recent attempts at addressing the lack of touch in digital communication. I discuss the Heartbits app, the Kissenger device and the various prototypes that have emerged from the IN-TOUCH project at University College London (UCL). Finally, I try to grasp what the future of touch might hold in digital environments, based on insights drawn from a recent artwork entitled Towards Telepathy (2017) produced by the South African artist, Katherine Bull and the French artist, Emmanuel de Montbron. These artists explore connection between individuals through the mode of "haptic visuality" as formulated by Laura Marks (2000).

Keywords : interoceptive touch; exteroceptive touch; digital communication technologies; embodied experience; haptic technologies; presence; telepresence; copresence; haptic visuality.

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