The Rise & Fall of Tom Thumb

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun — Seamus Heaney

A few years ago, I read about a contest in Japan that pitted cellphone texters against one another in a thumb speed competition. The results were astounding. Hundreds of teenagers tapped out staggering amounts of digital copy, their little pink thumbs a veritable blur.

Of course, none of what they wrote was even remotely memorable. A lot of it didn't make any sense at all. But fast? Whoo-ee.

It occurred to me recently that, with the emergence of touchscreen tablets, from the Kindle and Nook to the iPad and all its imitators, the era of the blazing thumb — and its ignorant prose style — might be declining. Microscreen handheld devices certainly will remain a part of our lives. But more of them already feature touchscreen technology, for which the index finger is the more convenient digit. As tablet applications continue to multiply, the functionality and popularity of handhelds might actually regress, purely because of the disparity in articulation between the index finger and the dumb old thumb.

The thumb is a great body part. Its opposability, like the smile, is the rare physical trait that distinguishes humans from most other beasts. However, its limitations are also defined by its opposability. Lacking something to oppose, the thumb is more or less an inferior finger — thicker, shorter, and clumsier than all but perhaps the pinky. The idiom “all thumbs” denotes a shortage of dexterity.

In all of history, the last 20-odd years are an anomaly; popular technology like cellphones and video games made the thumb the top digit among the five fingers. In this era, civilization showed subtle signs of regression. Kids got lower SAT scores. Grownups elected Nicolas Sarkozy and George W. Bush. And Hollywood launched an annual slate of really bad movies based on video games, with wooden characters played by execrable actors. One might call them thumb movies.

I must admit a certain admiration for people who can text swiftly and accurately with two thumbs. It's amazing to watch, and the tiny keypad with its limited number of keys requires the thumber (thumbist? thumbian? thumberator?) to memorize an entire alternate alphabet code. On the other hand, this feat has been proven to be — literally — child's play. If a nine-year-old can master it in a few hours so completely that she can do it with her eyes closed, it's not rocket science. Or even knitting.

Fortunately for all of us, virtually every new screen entering the market today prefers to be manipulated not by a thumb punching buttons and pushing knobs, but by an index finger sweeping back and forth, pointing here and there, and reasserting its proper place in the universe.

If the coup d'état of the thumb had prevailed, humanity might well have slipped into another Dark Age. Thinking people might have stood by helplessly while the intricate implements of the whole five-finger, multi-disciplinary human hand — from keyboards, pianos, and accordions to finger puppets, hanging files, and ballpoint pens — fell into disuse, eventually relegated to closets, dusty storerooms, and obscure museums.

We should remember that our first Dark Age ended with Gutenberg's printing press, which made the once-elite technology of the bound book, or codex, eventually accessible and affordable (even free) to everyone on earth. People thumb through books if they're only looking at the pictures. But literate people — we who take our time and read a book from cover to cover — turn each page, not with a thumb, but by placing an index finger at the upper right corner and turning it gently over.

And if the page sticks, the trusty thumb comes to the rescue — humanity's partner in dexterity. The relegation of the thumb once more to secondary status as the loyal opposition, rather than the ruling digit, is the restoration of a proper hierarchy. In Greek mythology, the index finger is associated with Zeus, the king of all gods. It denotes dominance, power, and immense energy. It points the way.

It also suggests, I hope, that our next generation of technology consumers, paging gently through their tablets, will be smarter. Guided by the best of their fingers, maybe they'll spend more time reading — and comprehending — the words, no matter how static they are, and they'll devote a little less attention to the pictures, no matter how dazzling, violent, and addictive.

3 comments on “The Rise & Fall of Tom Thumb

  1. dalexander
    November 13, 2012

    Interesting thoughts. I saw an Ipad Mini commercial that demonstarted that the Mini could be held in such as way as to free the thumbs up for the familiar texting move. I have a third generation Ipad and thumb prestidigitations are obsolete without a doubt, but I think with the new, larger phones and smaller tablets, we may see a resurgance of thumbnastics.

  2. SP
    November 14, 2012

    I also saw a video on you tube where teeenagers from korea or china were using their smartphones keypads so fast. It was amazing. Well the teenagers today got access to smartphones so early in their life that they live their entire day on it.

  3. t.alex
    November 18, 2012

    Anyone tried the Swype typing method for android ? It's pretty creative use of the thumb for speedy fast typing.

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