Thoughts on touch and care in digital processes.

Touch is a multitude of different things:

  • He touched all of our lives.
  • She touched herself.
  • They ran their fingers across the strings.
  • He gently ran his hand down her shoulder.
  • She felt the softness of the fabric.
  • He touched my heart.
  • Something about the texture of the 100€ bill was off.
  • He read page after page, running his fingers back and forth over the tiny bumps in the paper.
  • She was out of touch.
  • He is quite tactless.

Touch is a fundamental human state; touch is the interconnected body; touch is physics; we touch the world and the world touches us back.

Touch is gentle, present, evanescent, but requires the meeting of bodies persisting in space, their persistence very slightly altered with each touch.

Touch is careful, trusting, intimate, fragile.

UNIX touch

The touch program in UNIX updates file metadata without actually opening or writing to the file. If the file does not exist an empty file is created by changing the file table. If the file does exist its last changed date is modified to the current time. It is the gentelest touch imaginable, registering only as an after the fact statement that the file has been touched, the actual data being left entirely untouched.


The nature of the digital is quantised. Everything touched by a digital system is reduced from the presumed infinite resolution of the analogue and stored as numbers of finite precision. This is a radical difference, a violent touch, the digital always an approximation of the analogue.

The analogue is messy and infinite. A perfect digital signal translated to the analogue world is subjected to noise and imperfect reproduction. And so, the analogue touch is also violent to the digital.

Lossy Compression

Lossy compression is taking quantisation further. Reducing the precision of a quantised representation of something like an image saves you a lot of space. Depending on the compression algorithm, repeatedly applying it to the same image can result in a slow deterioration of the image into noise.

Reciprocal Digital Touch

The examples of digital touch above are all touching without themselves being touched. Using the touch program doesn't change the way the program will function the next time it is run. In the analogue world there is no touching without being touched. I'd like to imagine a reciprocal digital touch where the interaction of two entities changes both. A digital symbiosis. To do this, the software that touches has to be reimagined as more than a tool for control, but something that is allowed to change and is valued for its imperfections.


Is a digital system/process/software worthy to touch? Is it worthy of love and care? Is the idea of a digital touch approaching human touch, or extending care not only to organic non-humans but also non-organic non-human non-beings, in fact a technofascist imagination? Can digital touch really be a way to counteract reduction of the digital to resources in the way that modern society has reduced all of nature and themselves?


i hope that the experience of care even for digital processes can spread to and be a part of a general mode of being, permeated by care. i hope that the metaphor of touch can be one way of reaching this mode of being. as most of our lives are mediated through digital systems we have been denied caring for the processes within them.

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