Where tech aligns

All Surface and No Feeling

What’s lost when the concrete sensibility of buttons gives way to the flatness of the touchscreen and the kiosk.

The expression “with the push of a button” always conjured ease with an undercurrent of suspicion. The age of the button that followed the age of the factory floor and the assembly line was met with skepticism of a society giving up craftsmanship and labor for raw efficiency. Jobs would disappear and people’s lives would become automated. Something akin to a tragic version of The Jetsons.

Today it’s the push-button age that feels antiquated while it’s the emerging digital and touchscreen usurper that feels both revolutionary and destabilizing. While most of the population settles into this new regime of black glass and voice-controlled apps, some may be less inclined to let go of the old, obsolete machinery, with its noises and jamming and operational sloth. But what if they have good reason?

As I hear the clicking of my keyboard while I type this, I think about the difference in experience that would come from replacing my mechanical keyboard with a touchscreen. What if the computer would add haptic feedback to the touch-screen keyboard? What if the computer adds a clicking sound to the digital keyboard? Would it be the same?

There’s a unique appeal to mechanical devices in our digital age. There is an obvious nostalgia at play, similar to the many hipsters who cling to the idea of vinyl records. Like vinyl, the push-button surface is concrete, and denotes that a kind of labor has gone into it. But maybe it’s also practical. The older population in our society seem incapable of mastering digital devices, just as many grandparents have a hard time navigating online banking apps on their phones and end up habitually driving to an ATM. (I blame boomers for many things, but not on this – legacy-bank apps just suck.)

As our interfaces shrink from buttons to touchscreens to voice modulation, and perhaps just thoughts directly streamed from the brain, there’s a sense that mechanical interfaces still matter. I’m not making the argument that “you can’t physically hold your bitcoins; I can hold gold in my hands, therefore gold is better;” only that maybe the physical friction of a button connects us back to our humanity. It feels more masculine to throw a spear, to wield a sword, to cut the rope of a catapult, to shoot an AR-15 than it is to press some buttons on a touchscreen that fires a payload from a drone hundreds of miles away.

We’ve seen the success of devices like the reMarkable that have realized that importance of physicality. Many techbros would dismiss these as tools for a niche group of luddite hipsters, but these techbros are the same who prefer chunky mechanical keyboards over the thin – almost digital – keyboards that laptops now have.

A terrible way to try to keep a connection to the mechanical while moving to the digital is the artificial sounds on the BMW i8 – an electric car that added artificial engine sounds every time the driver would accelerate. A better way to go about this would be turning on the haptic feedback and the keyboard sounds on your iPhone. It’s hard to describe why one works and the other doesn’t – maybe it’s a “touch and a feel.” 

Despite the popularity of devices like the Apple Watch, mechanical watches hold their appeal as a status symbol. No digital innovation has superseded the luxury and quality afforded from the classical engineering of watchmaking. It goes quickly from practicality to hobby. Mechanical keyboards, though far less glamorous, are the same way.

Why do computer programmers spend thousands of dollars on keyboards? An essential, everyday item for work might be worth tuning every detail on how it feels. You can go with mechanical, membrane, or optical. Keyboards have a ton of variety on how a key-press feels, layout, programmability, aesthetics, and materials; the possibilities can be endless. With mechanical switches on a keyboard, you can experiment with different sets of weights: clicky, tactile, or a smooth linear switch, all for the sake of personal preference on the feel. Load, silent, or low-profile, made for any type of work environment. 

The allure of the physicality of our technology could also lead you astray, predicting a future that is not to come – just like many in the printing industry made the mistake of underestimating digital computers, under the guise of “people will always want the feel of paper.” Maybe this was a mistake for them, which lead to their ruin, or maybe it wasn’t – since reMarkable has picked up that baton.

Replacing the physicality of products with digital services is not always successful – you can read about the case of iSmel in a hilarious article that didn’t age very well from Wired magazine, in which the author says: “DigiScent is here. If this technology takes off, it’s gonna launch the next Web revolution.” That is one big if.

“Just as we can download digitized music and play it through speakers attached to a computer, we should soon be able to acquire online scent data that a little gadget can play back as smells.” We can now look back and chuckle at this idea.

Although our sense of smell is not under attack by digital technologies, they have taken over eyesight and hearing completely – it is touch that is currently the battleground.

Touchscreens were thought to be a step closer to something more human, back in the Blackberry-keyboard days. As we transitioned from Nokias that flip horizontally to reveal their keyboard, towards the current phones in which you touch what you want to open, like in the physical world. But many people would now make the case that they don’t feel more human, trapped staring at the glow of the glass-slab they carry around in their pockets. 

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One gives us the representation of the haptic-suit, a device that covers the screen of the characters in order to give them a complete immersive experience in the game. They feel punches and caresses of other people in their respective living rooms. It’s hard to say if these things are ever going to exist as portrayed in the novel, but various companies are making the attempts to have gloves that represent the feeling of grabbing an object in digital space.

One grim indicator of the future is seeing the amount of service jobs, such as McDonald’s cashiers, being replaced by kiosks. It is just the first step before we accustom ourselves to ordering everything through the touchscreen in our phones. Maybe we end up just ordering from home while they arrive by drone. Boutique food delivery services like BlueApron and its many competitors have set us already on a course not just for app-based purchasing, but not leaving home at all.

I still remember when I got my Nintendo 64 for Christmas back when I was little. I remember the clicking of the “game packs” being smashed into the console as I’m trying to play Mario. I remember the grip of the M-shaped controller with a texturized analog control stick. I remember I got a little jealous that a friend of mine got a special edition console that was see-through, where you can see most of the components through a green plastic prism. That didn’t bother me that much since I had special games, like the Donkey Kong game in a yellow game pack; and The Legend of Zelda, in a golden game pack. When not playing at home with friends on a console or our computers in a LAN party – I remember playing in the arcades, trying to cheat at Street Fighter by pushing my friend away from the stick at the booth in some mall.

In the mid-twentieth century a kind of cultural backlash against the push-button age called “steampunk” emerged in which antiquated, usually Victorian-era engineering was made to seem livelier than the analytical button-based regime, and rebellious as a result. The style has fallen into something closer to cosplay in recent years, but its example remains compelling. The interconnectivity promised by frictionless, hands-free interface enables in reality a much more passive and isolate experience compared to what it replaced. 

If push-button gadgetry seems cumbersome and clunky compared to what we have now, there is just underneath it an appeal that is more than nostalgic, practical, or simply stubborn. Embracing buttons amounts to a kind of resistance in favor of a rapidly declining physical connectivity and mechanical engineering. It’s a resistance of effort over seamlessness. And in the face of mass convenience, it’s not something that can be committed to with a push of a button.

Lots more where that came from.