He’s got your hands,” people tell me, looking at the giant paws on one of my sons. I’m charmed-who wouldn’t be?-but I know what’s ahead. Someday soon, somewhere on the bumpy road to independence, he’ll look at my wife and utter a version of those immortal words, “Look, Ma, no hands!”
Like so many kids these days, my boys will probably learn to play soccer rather than the handball common in the New York of my youth. They’ll resent me if my treatment of them isn’t evenhanded, and they’ll feel my absence, I hope, if I’m not sufficiently on hand. But what will they be like when they get older? Will they be handy around the house? Pull down a handsome income and get high-handed because of it? Or find themselves living hand-to-mouth and moping about in hand-me-downs?
As befits a species set apart by opposable thumbs, we seem to use hands in our language almost as much as we do in life. Hands are what enable us to do things, after all; literally as well as etymologically, our manipulations often depend upon them. Instructions for products, when not presented in the new hieroglyphics of global commerce (equally incomprehensible everywhere), are printed in a manual, as if in acknowledgment that these directions must be carried out by hand, and even though my own aging mitts are soft, manual labor of a sort is what I perform at this keyboard every day.
Not many years from now, however, my sons may read these words in disbelief. Already, “natural speech” technology enables fairly run-of-the-mill personal computers to comprehend normally spoken words with a rate of errors not much different from that of many high school graduates prevailed upon to take dictation, and the software is getting better all the time. The day seems not far off when, like the character in Star Trek who travels back in time to the era of primitive microchip technology, we will be astonished when we address our computer by name and it remains inert, deaf to any entreaties save the laying on of hands.
It’s unsettling to think that my generation of Americans may be among the last so firmly connected to the world by our hands. When my boys get older, I can tell them about junior high school shop class the semester we boys had printing (the girls probably had home economics). We’d all stand over cases full of type, arranging the letters one by one. Dexterity mattered. Can you believe this? It wasn’t even 30 years ago, but Ben Franklin would have felt at home in that room, and even Gutenberg himself might not have been much confused by the scene.
A few summers later I got the chance to work with my hands again, helping to pleat skirts in a sweatshop in New York’s garment district. I found the work excruciatingly boring, and never got much of a feel for fabrics. Subsequently I worked in a bank, clearing checks by hand and managing transfers of money by wire, but by the time I got to college I had found a better way to support myself manually: accomplished typists were very much in demand. But as it turns out, almost all the jobs I did with my hands in those days are now obsolete or very nearly so.
In one sense, the rise of voice-based technologies affirms the triumph of the spoken word over the printed one, just as the evolution of computers into multimedia devices will tend to emphasize pictures and sound over text. As Alvin Kernan pointed out in The Death of Literature (Yale University Press, 1990), the decline of the printed word as the repository of truth has vast implications for the way people know things, the nature of knowledge, and our sense of ourselves.
But the spread of no-hands systems also implies a sharp new increase in the level of abstraction at which most of us live. Already, work for many Americans is blessedly removed from the manipulation of physical objects in the cause of production. Business editors everywhere fret that no matter what someone’s job or field of enterprise, photos always turn out the same: a person in front of a computer. Which is the steelworker and which is the novelist? (It might be easier to tell from their health insurance.)