What is the role of human touch in digital art and the age of artificial intelligence? We reflect on the digital world and virtual reality, which aren’t so far removed from us after all!
The Digital Aesthetics programme promoted by the National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan in partnership with IBSA Foundation for scientific is now in its fourth year. This is a great achievement, and we’d like to take stock of what’s been done so far, while reflecting more broadly on digital art and its impact on society.
So far, we’ve seen works by Neil Mendoza, Michael Bromley, and the auroraMeccanica and panGenerator collectives. What these works, which we’ve already commented on in the past, all have in common is that they make use of digital mechanisms and are interactive.
Three of them need to be activated by touch to bring them to life, a feature indeed shared by most digital artworks. This leads us to reflect on the origins and implications of the relationship between animal human and digital human. ‘Digital human’, because in computer science and electronics, digital means what is most abstract, in other words digits, as it is accomplished by manipulating numbers. And 'animal human’, because the term digital comes from our anatomy, from the fact that we have fingers and that, as a result, when we built digital devices we made them in such a way that for them to work, they need us to press buttons, or to touch, to skim our fingertips across a screen.
Could we have designed them differently?
Yes, we could have, but we didn’t. And that’s because our hands are our main tool, so we’ve built more and more devices by hand to use with our hands. But also because, perhaps in this way, we still feel connected to our animal roots and, therefore, to our origins.
Let’s not forget that people with visual and speech impairments have developed systems that allow them to learn about and access everything the world has to offer using their fingertips. For example, by using touch, blind people can walk or travel anywhere by skimming and feeling around them, and by reading using the Braille system. People with aphonia, or without a voice, have invented a means of communicating called sign language, using hand and finger gestures.
In digital icons, finger expression emojis are just as important as ‘emoticons’ and smileys. We use our fingers to gesture, to do, make, see and speak. This natural body part has set us apart from other animals since our origins. In fact, making objects by hand for the hands is not only a natural but also a technical evolutionary characteristic of humans.
All this makes us realise that the digital world, also called virtual reality, isn’t so virtual after all, because it has a real impact on our lives. For this reason, it would be wise to embrace another term: augmented reality. Of course, in the usual sense of the term, augmented reality generally means the realm of reality enjoyed and experienced using electronic devices. But it is also true that anything outside of the Adamic condition should be seen as augmented reality, even the fig leaf.
The ‘original sin’ itself, which caused the transition from the mythical Golden Age to the terrestrial era, can be regarded as the dawn of augmented reality. Adam and Eve used a hand to pick the apple from the tree, which is why they were banished from the Garden, but it is also how they acquired knowledge, starting to augment their own existence. However, this is just one example: the hand is pivotal in the development of humanity in a whole host of early mythologies, religions and philosophies, and scientific theories and applications. Our hands take, grip, touch, skim, stroke, type and press. And in the 5th century BC, the Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras even said that “man is the most intelligent animal because he has hands.” In other words, digital intelligence had already been declared before the term was even coined, which brings us back from our origins to the present day of digital-touch art and, therefore, Digital Aesthetics.
By Giacinto Di Pietrantonio