Smartphones are defining our social lives and this may not be a bad thing. Illustration by/ Parker Bryant
Smartphones are defining our social lives and this may not be a bad thing. Illustration by/ Parker Bryant


Before modern, digital communication technology existed, social interactions were an intrinsically physical act. If you wanted to hang out with friends, you got off the couch, left your room, walked out the door, strolled over to the local pub, tried to spot your friends, mosied on over to them, shook hands, and sat down. There was an intimate and strong link between social interaction and physical touch.


Now there are multiple ways people can communicate that do not require any in-person contact. Has development of modern communication technology done away with the close tie between social and physical interaction? All one has to do is look at how much time people are spending on their mobile devices.

Canadians use their smartphones about 222 times per month, or approximately 3.3 hours per day, spending more time online than any other developed country—nearly 44 hours a month, which is about double the worldwide average.

Touch technology has been around in some form since the mid-60s, but was only really embraced in the past 20 years. The first touch-sensitive phones and PDAs weren’t released until 1993, by IBM and Apple respectively, and only really boomed with Apple’s release of the iPhone in 2007.

Now touch technology is essential to communication for nearly all smartphones: you tap a screen to start texting, use a digital keyboard to tap out a message, swipe over a few other windows to snap a quick photo, imbed it in the message, and hit the send button. Voila! You have just communicated with someone without having to leave your house, or even put on pants.

Clearly, Canadians are spending a huge amount of time communicating with one another digitally, but does this change mean that the link between physical and social interaction, in at least some forms of communication, is eroding?  


This isn’t really the case. People’s technological habits does not reduce their ability to reach out and touch others; the relationship between physical and social interaction still exists in a digital medium. Those who suggest the contrary define too narrowly what touch can be. To touch something is to come into contact with another body—to leave an impression on it. Touch and impression are inextricably linked because it’s impossible to come into contact with something without affecting it in at least a small way.


The ideas we communicate technologically have the potential to touch others, so long as they leave an impression of any kind. The content of your messages, texts, pokes, or videos influence—on some level—a person’s thought which, in turn, affects their actions.


Imagine you snap a photo of a park in Toronto that you’re particularly fond of. You take that picture, apply a couple choice filters, and post it on a friend’s page—someone potentially hundreds of kilometers away. When seen, your photo will necessarily inspire some degree of thought, and because thought dictates action, even a slight change to thought can lead to real-world changes. These are the physical impacts of your digital actions.

The ability to inspire physical change in the world is independent of the mode of communication you chose. Whether you are communicating face-to-face or on Facebook, the ability to touch others persists. The intimate link between touch and social interaction still exists in a digital format through the effects of digital actions on the minds of the people you are communicating with.

So next time you’re feeling lonely, log onto your tablet, reach out, and touch somebody.

comments powered by Disqus