Marshall McLuhan and the Tactile Web

The following is an adaptation to an article form of the presentation I did at HighEdWeb 2012 that I attempted to get published on A List Apart; unfortunately, after several rounds of edits, we weren’t able to come to a mutually satisfying vision of what the article should be. So I present it here for your perusal instead. Big thanks to Rose Weisburd of ALA and her fellow readers for all of their suggestions in tightening up what could have been a sprawling mess of an article.

In 1965, Marshall McLuhan published what quickly became one of the founding documents of modern media theory, Understanding Media. In it, McLuhan contended that media are essentially extensions of human senses: print is an extension of the eye, the phonograph and radio of the ear, and so on. McLuhan, who died in 1981, did not live to see the rise of the web, but he predicted that the sense being extended in what he called the “electric age” was that of touch. With the growing omnipresence of tactile interfaces like those of the iPhone and similar devices, the medium of the web is already becoming something that we touch, as much as we see and hear it. What will the tactile web look (and feel) like, and how might McLuhan’s theory of media help those of us who build websites think about it?

The Rise of the Tactile Web

We tend to think of the web as an audio-visual medium. Whether we are consuming or producing text, image, podcast, or video, the web is undoubtedly a feast for the eyes and the ears. Yet in many ways, the personal computing revolution, and by extension, the rise of the web, has been a story in which we – quite literally – manipulate data with our hands. In adopting the graphical user interface, the mouse, and then the laptop trackpad, we have adopted a method of interacting with data that is both metaphorically (“pointing” with an arrow or the digital rendering of a small hand) and physically (“clicking,” or tapping the mouse button with our own fingers) tactile. As web designers, we constantly rely on the metaphor of tactility to shape user experience and create the illusion of three dimensional space on two-dimensional screens. At the subtle end of the spectrum, you might think of submit buttons that appear to depress slightly when the user “presses” them; at the absurd end of the spectrum, the various skeumorphic UIs being ridiculed on

Beginning with the iPhone, a new generation of devices has now brought the web to the tips of our fingers, foregrounding physical tactility over the metaphorical. A new language of gestures, swipes, and taps is quickly replacing the old one of point-and-click, and with new hardware like the Leap this new language is making its way onto the desktop as well. At the moment those interested in making use of these methods of user interaction are stuck creating native apps for different operating systems, but future versions of HTML, CSS, and Javascript will almost certainly have to reckon with the new gestural lingua franca with which we interact with the web. Forget onClick and a:hover; what about onPinch and a:Swipe?

And just around the corner is a brand-new generation of devices that will respond to the user’s touch with tactile responses of their own. The vibration motor and accelerometer in, say, an iPhone, can provide a limited amount of what is called “haptic feedback;” for example, if the user’s avatar goes off the track in a racing game, the device’s motor may activate to approximate the sensation of driving off of the smooth asphalt onto the rough earth that surrounds it. Some new technologies, however, look to extend devices’ haptic feedback capabilities far beyond simple vibration. Technologies like that being produced by Senseg use electrostatic forces to simulate different tactile sensations, while the Tactus microfluid touch screen actually creates small bubbles beneath the screen to simulate keyboard keys, technologies that will no doubt find other, more ingenious, applications in the future, from allowing text to be displayed in braille to the reproduction of 3D maps.

Now imagine a world in which technologies like this are standardized across platforms, and available to web designers. We are already building websites that our users are touching; it’s only a matter of time before we’re building websites that touch back.

McLuhan and the Web

The web, of course, did not yet exist during the lifetime of McLuhan. Nevertheless, I think a key part of his understanding of media is applicable to the tactile web. McLuhan’s primary means of differentiating between media was a spectrum that ranged from “hot” to “cool.” Hot media are dense with information, and as a result require little participation or interaction from the receiver of the medium, while cool media contain little information and therefore require more work from the receiver to parse the content contained therein. A photograph, rich in information and requiring little interaction by the viewer, is hot; a comic strip, made up of a few penstrokes that require the viewer to cognitively assemble them into a coherent whole, is cool. The “hotness” or “coolness” of a medium is thus an inherent part of that medium; some media demand participation through small amounts of stimuli, while others, rich with data, overwhelm the audience and are passively consumed.

Perhaps surprisingly, McLuhan favorite example of cool, participatory media is one that we tend to think of today as a passive one: television. Its low level of detail (in the year of Understanding Media’s publication, only half of primetime programming was in color) made it a “cool,” participatory medium, and its small screens (the largest available in 1965 was a whopping 25 inches, or roughly the size of the monitor I sit a foot from every
day at work) encouraged audiences to sit close to the set and become absorbed in the picture.

The TV image is visually low in data… [it] offers some three million dots per second to the receiver. From these he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from which to make an image… [T]he viewer… unconsciously reconfigures the dots into an abstract work of art on the pattern of a Seurat or Rouault… The TV image requires each instant that we “close” the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object. (Understanding Media, MIT Press, 2002. p. 313-4)

Far from being a medium to be passively “watched,” to McLuhan television was a fully sensory experience in which the viewer is an active participant. Surrounding and enveloping the actively-engaged viewer, television became an extension not just of the eye, but of the all the sense organs, including (though not limited to) the skin. A medium does not require the characteristic of tactility to be cool, but tactility makes already cool media even cooler.

The tactile web that is being born around us today, I contend, bears a great deal of resemblance to McLuhan’s theorization of television. Just as McLuhan considered it impossible to passively view television, I would argue that it is impossible to passively receive the web. One does not simply “watch” the web; to acquire any information from it, one must engage the web. At the very least one “surfs” it by navigating an un-predetermined path of links between pages; at the most one helps build it, whether by contributing content (even something as seemingly insignificant as a blog comment) or code.

Mobile devices make this engagement even more evident: think of all the times you’ve stood on a busy street, oblivious to the traffic around you while absorbed in data coming through your phone from halfway around the world. The small screens of our devices in many ways echo the low-resolution TVs of the 60s, while our touchscreens and earbud-cocoons assist in capturing our attentions and “demand[ing] participation and involvement in depth of the whole being.” As with McLuhan’s conception of television, our interaction with the web is not “the isolated contact of skin and object,” but “a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile.” The web, as it becomes increasingly tactile, is becoming increasingly immersive.

Building an immersive, tactile web

As the builders of the web, what do we gain by thinking of the web as a “cool,” tactile, and participatory medium? McLuhan thought the transformative power of television lay in its ability to sensually immerse a large population in complex symbolic processes; his preferred example was the Kennedy funeral. I think we’ve been watching similar changes on the web with regard to social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which permit us to participate simultaneously with people we’ve never met in cultural events from the Super Bowl to the Arab Spring. The cool, tactile web permits us to be absorbed into those events like never before through the interactions between our devices and our eyes, ears, and fingers. For those who create these platforms, a realization of participating in something larger than “just” building a website will be essential to success. Part of the reason we’re still talking about Facebook and Twitter today is because they have done such a fine job of adapting to the shift from small, niche websites to global information platforms that facilitate and encourage such absorption.

Of course, the television analogy outlined above is not a perfect one. While a given page, particularly one that has been optimized for consumption on a mobile device, is likely to be experienced by a user as cool, i.e. low in information density, the web itself might be thought of as hot, dense with information in a manner that nearly defies human comprehension. The job of the web builder, then, is to funnel an inherently hot medium into a cool form that is not only comprehensible to users, but also keeps them engaged long enough to accomplish the task which they have elected to undertake. The best web designs, to this way of thinking, present just enough of the nearly infinite available set of information to encourage continued interaction with the site, while keeping enough information hidden to avoid overwhelming users.

The tactile web will of course have important implications in accessibility (might images soon be required to have alt-textures in addition to alt-text?) as well as in the types of content that we’ll be able and/or required to produce (imagine e-commerce sites which include the ability for customers to “feel” the material of clothing they’re purchasing). User testing will likely become even more vital to our work, as the sense of touch could prove even more subjective than the sense of sight.

Even the tools with which we work will likely change as a result of the tactile web. For example, I’ve often thought of working with CSS as being not unlike sculpting with clay, carefully molding the raw material of markup and shaving pixels off of margins until the form in your head emerges onto the screen; it may very well be that a new generation of coding tools will make that metaphor significantly closer to reality, allowing us to build websites with the mediation between our hands and our machines nearly invisible.

Take a moment to step back from the site you’re working on right now and ask yourself: what would it feel like if you could touch it? How would you shape it, and how would your users experience it? How might you take advantage of tactile technologies to improve upon that experience?

These are questions that you might have to answer sooner than you think.

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