- Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing by David Parisi
In an era dominated by a demand for touchscreens and ever-more immersive virtual reality experiences, haptics has become an essential feature of modern communication networks. The dialogue surrounding tactile technoscience typically depicts efforts to mechanize touch as an entirely recent phenomenon, creating the impression that contemporary researchers are striving to recapture a long-neglected sense. As novel as these emerging haptic interfaces appear, however, this mindset fails to recognize that touch's technogenesis has been nearly four hundred years in the making. David Parisi seeks to rectify this perspective in Archaeologies of Touch by constructing a narrative of touch's technological integration that begins with eighteenth-century electrotactile machines and continues up to the appearance of twenty-first-century remote sex systems. By exploring a range of scientific attempts to study and harness the power of touch, Parisi not only crafts a thorough and illuminating history of haptic technologies but also offers a much-needed intervention in discussions that seem to have forgotten the precomputing developments from which our current desire for tactile interfacing grew.
Although the wide-ranging timeframe that Parisi covers in Archaeologies of Touch could initially seem daunting to those unfamiliar with haptics or the field of technoscientific history, the book's clear organizational structure makes its overall claims easy to follow for those coming from a range of disciplines. Each of the five chapters focuses on a different phase of interfacing: (1) the utilization of electrotactile machines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; (2) a movement into a "tactile modernity" at the turn of the twentieth century, during which scientists experimented with touch in laboratories as a means of better understanding the different components of this sense; (3) attempts in the mid-twentieth century to mobilize haptic knowledge by creating new communicative channels through technologies dependent on skin contact; (4) a shift into projects centered around computer haptics in the latter half of the twentieth century; and (5) twenty-first-century efforts to market touch technologies as products that allow users to "rediscover" and enhance a lost tactile experience. These five phases unfold linearly and are oriented around a series of case studies that illustrate the primary characteristics of each stage. While moving through the various periods that Parisi lays out for readers, audiences begin to recognize "the instrumentalization, rationalization, and disciplining of touch" as an endeavor with roots that go [End Page 420] well beyond the computing era and come to see current efforts to mechanize haptic encounters as anything but a twenty-first-century trend (p. 217).
Parisi begins Archaeologies of Touch with "Interface 1: The Electrotactile Machine," in which he argues that the first attempts at integrating touch into electronic networks of communication can be traced back to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century inventions. This chapter consists primarily of case studies that showcase the integral role touch assumed in early electrical experiments. Parisi pulls together a diverse sequence of examples for readers: the electrified Venus parlor game, the Leyden jar, investigations of the electric eel, Volta's electric apparatuses as well as his attempts to see how bodily contact with electricity elicited certain sensations, and various electroshock therapy treatments. Though these instances are wide-ranging, Parisi effectively highlights the ways they are connected by their promotion of a "non-linguistic, tactile communication both between networked humans and the machines they interfaced productively with" (p. 47). The cases presented in this chapter thus reveal how our contemporary fascination with touch technologies is not an isolated occurrence but rather the most recent episode in a long history of tactility's mechanization.
Chapter 2, "The Haptic," moves readers into the second phase of interfacing, a period in which scientists began to isolate studies of touch in laboratory settings as they attempted to construct a formalized field. During this time, the science of touch became organized, and researchers actively sought to assemble a set of protocols around this emerging discipline. Touch therefore became something that individuals...