This is really quite a change. The centrality of hands has been acknowledged throughout history, after all. People shook hands in greeting, perhaps to show that they held no weapons, and in countries given to draconian punishments, thieves had their hands cut off. Personally, I’ll never forget the wrenching moment in The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s 1946 classic, when Harold Russell comes home from the war and reveals to his beloved that he’s lost his hands. What a terrible injury, especially for a seaman, whose very identity is manual. Sailors are summoned to assembly, after all, with the cry, “All hands on deck!”
Yet it seems to me that making things happen without using our hands is really the logical conclusion of something larger in our culture. The rise of the automobile, central air conditioning, office work, hyperspecialization (on the part of everyone from medical practitioners to those in building trades), television, canned and frozen foods and countless other developments have taken prosperous Americans further and further away from not just the natural world, but from the breadth of experience that formerly went with normality. Chance encounters, home cooking and other such earthiness are increasingly banished from encapsulated lives. Our growing fear of microbes-unseen killers of seemingly ever-more-exotic and ever-more-lethal varieties-has led lately to a boom in products that tout themselves as anti-bacterial. Who can blame us, given our preference for living and traveling in sealed seclusion, for not wanting to reach out and touch anything? I notice that, since my boys were born, I always seem to be washing my hands.
Hands-free systems are a boon to the handicapped, of course, and can make complicated machines more accessible to people now intimidated by them. Yet isn’t there something just a little alienating about a world that increasingly responds not to our touch, but to our words? I discover now that when I negotiate a computerized telephone tree, I am less and less frequently required to press buttons. Instead I am asked to “press or say three” for customer service. Lately I have been saying three, and getting what passes for customer service. The next step in this progression, of course, is that our conversations won’t be with human beings at all-they’ll be with machines. Call directory assistance these days and you’re not likely to speak to a person. Instead, a computer asks what listing you want, you answer, and the computer recites the number. “You could be talking to a machine right now and not know it,” observes Douglas G. Danforth, a very human senior research engineer at Stanford University’s Applied Speech Technology Laboratory. “But do I threaten your existence? Talking to a machine in this way could be very useful.”