But what of a world that responds not to our words but to our being? After all, personal computers are only the latest manifestation of the increasing tendency of things to work without any of the hand-to-hand combat traditionally required of users. Some of these technologies are quite homely: For a while now I have had a speaker phone, and motion-sensor lights on the outside of my house, while at the neighborhood supermarket they are so glad to see a glutton like me that the doors part magically at my arrival. When our twins were born, I got my wife a cordless phone with a headset; I try to give her a hand every way I can.
Someday, when my boys are 18 hands high, we’ll take all this for granted, but during the foggy technological interregnum in which we now find ourselves, caught between hands-on and hands-off, these issues can be disconcerting. Not long ago, at an airport, I found myself in one of those automated bathrooms, where I witnessed the puzzlement of some techno-tyro confronted for the first time with an auto-flushing urinal. Not wanting to violate the ancient taboo against failing to wash away his sins, this poor naf looked high and low for some lever, knob, switch or other means of initiating the ritual cascade, only to peer back in disbelief when, as soon as he’d walked away, the darned thing flushed all by itself-as if it had been playing possum all along! When this poor mocked soul got to the sink, it was dj vu all over again: no way to turn the thing on, until he saw the guy next to him get water simply by waving his hands under the faucet. What will they think of next?
How about newfangled highways that leave the driving to computers? Or a teddy bear that responds to noise or jostling to emit a few minutes of womb-like white noise to soothe fussy babies? We got one of these as a present when our twins were born, and it proved indispensable in helping them get to sleep.
And then there is the house being built near Seattle for Bill Gates. There, family and friends will be able to have various preferences encoded on electronic badges; walk through the place wearing one and, supposedly, video screens will display your favorite artworks and speakers will emit your kind of music. Even the lights and temperature will adjust. This might be convenient, but it’s hard to think of a more effective way to reinforce human hubris than for everyone to live in such a house and then take it for granted that our environment must adapt to our comfort simply by responding to our presence.
Inevitably, when computers can sense our presence and adjust to it, the fear arises that they may somehow control us as well. Who can forget HAL 9000 in 2001: a Space Odyssey? “People won’t like to be told what to do by computers,” says Andrew Hunt, a speech applications specialist at Sun Microsystems. “You never hear the Star Trek computer giving orders. People will want to be in control of their computer rather than being servant to it.”
There was a time, of course, when most people talked with their hands, making furniture and other products that were the result of craftsmanship. Their handiwork, as it was properly called, might even be their livelihood. I talk with my hands too, typing out my jerry-built works letter by letter in a familiar process, and worry that my voice will change when I start writing with my mouth. I try to imagine the sound of no hands tapping, but it’s difficult. Who knows, after all, where any technology may lead?
Yet when I leave off work and go into the house, I grab my boys, they grab me, and I lose any fears that our paws will atrophy, abetted by a host of what might be called offhand technologies. I see what should have been obvious, which is that, ultimately, what sets us apart is not our thumbs but our hearts and minds. Do I worry that my children will never learn to read a sundial because of the coming of the wristwatch? That their feet will lack useful calluses due to the availability of shoes? That the quill pen will be alien to them? I do not. And so of those who make it easier to communicate with the devices that make it easier to live, I can only say, fine. Let’s all give them a hand. The ability to applaud, like the ability to grasp, will always be with us.