Using the internet is a bit like interacting with the real world whilst wearing a set of thick gloves. There is presence, there is material, but it is not to be interacted with first hand. A simulation of interaction can be achieved, but through a series of proxies: input gleaned from the mouse, keyboard, microphone, and webcam.
Toucher by Serge Bourchardon, Kevin Carpentier, and Stephanie Spenle manages to make the reader hyper aware of the glove more than it succeeds in removing it. Our awareness of touch, of interaction and its effects are heightened by the proxy. Every interaction is deliberate, awareness of the exchange from physical to digital space is required to experience each lexia, each devoted to a different form of touch.
Working across the navigation screen right to left, you come to the lexia “move”. You are asked to move about your mouse, to arrange and shuffle through a mix and match of queries. The first query pairing kicks off “move” with the question that perhaps drives the whole work: “Do you touch me when I touch you?” Which is a tricky enough question before you exit the physical world. You can rest your fingertips on a surface, you are touching that surface, but it is not touching you back. Touch is qualified by sentience, or at least responsiveness, driven by a seeming ‘mind of its own’. Even the peas and the mashed potatoes touching is driven by some malevolent will. I digress. When you, a human, touches something, it is that thing you expect to respond, in some manner or another. The doorbell gives under a finger’s pressure, though that is not the ultimate intended result. That result is the doorbell ringing, then someone answering the door.
It is in this state of removal Toucher exists. Your breath may blow away the letters and snowflakes that have accumulated on your screen, but only when received as audial input via microphone and a dozen other invisible processes resulting in the scattering of pixels. Of course this happens so swiftly you might not think on it, but for the remove. There is no stepping up to the monitor and blowing away the graphics as you would dust on a shelf. You must first locate a microphone and assure your computer you are okay with interacting with the work (snapping on the gloves, if you will) and then interacting with the microphone to see the idea of your breath displaced by several inches or feet as its effects are carried out on screen.
In the process of simulating the senses, trying to create something instinctive, rather than our trained proficiency of by proxy interaction, Toucher occasionally drives right past instinctive into innovative. Well, that might be a bit strong a word, but in its reluctance to adhere to standard digital interface interaction Toucher has readers learn connections they may not utilize. In ‘caress,’ where a seeing person would base their interaction with the object by sight, Toucher has you associate touch to sound. As you caress the screen (via mouse or trackpad) you are instructed to follow the sound in order to form a sense of an object, rather than relying on your sense of vision.
Toucher takes the processes of input with which computer users are already intensely familiar, and seeks to streamline them, though not in ways you would expect. What would be obvious in the physical world seems surprising in the digital (the sound of a touch for example.) Toucher ends up as a sort of ‘how to’ guide to interaction, there is more than one way to interact with your computer. The boundaries between digital and physical are blurring. Or at the very least, they are doing better at convincing you they blur.