By MJ Ali
I went to a local restaurant with my sister the other day. We sat outside in a very large covered space, and nearly all the tables were full. Not unusual for this popular place, but here’s what was astounding: not one person was staring down at their phone. From teens to seniors, everyone was engaged in conversation, eye contact, and social touch. What’s more astounding is that witnessing humans interacting without technological interference is considered a rare sociological event worth noting.
With advances in technology and touch, studies are ongoing with regard to social touch utilizing touch technology. And, while we know virtual online environments have been used for social interaction for quite a while, this takes it a giant leap further.
For instance, anyone communicating in a virtual/digital environment doesn’t experience social touch as part of that interaction. With the help of technology, the Tactile Sleeve for Social Touch (TaSST) can provide mediated touch that our brain perceives as actual touch. This has far-reaching implications not only for long-distance interactions, but for digitally reaching out to those who are experiencing profound isolation.
People with social anxiety and phobia have access to therapy and other support venues because technology has provided us with the ability to help people through online media. With mediated touch, people who are touch phobic, for example, may soon be able to experience therapeutic mediated touch while remaining in a safe environment.
Realistically speaking, I think it’s safe to say that organic social touch is not going to be replaced by mediated social touch any time soon. In these technologically dominated times, however, more and more people are experiencing social isolation due to social anxiety, agoraphobia, and increased reliance on—and addiction to–virtual environments for their primary social interaction.
Touch technology has the potential to help countless people in very specific ways, but for the vast majority of us for whom technology is not a necessity for moving a prosthetic limb or re-enabling neural pathways, balance is key.
As we marvel at some of the amazing things being accomplished with touch technology, we can also celebrate our ability to get our hands dirty, press our toes into the sand, touch a loved one’s cheek, or hold someone’s hand. Because, while we may be able to simulate what all of that feels like, nothing can replace a spontaneous hug, a butterfly kiss, or a reassuring touch on the shoulder.