When Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook to Meta late last month in a “founder’s letter,” I was on a video call with my writing group, discussing the tactile joys of our craft — the benefits of writing by hand, our love of beautiful Rhodia writing pads, our favorite examples of manuscript pages (mine: David Foster Wallace’s, reeking of chew). Between three of us, we owned five typewriters and no social media accounts. There we were in the metaverse, longing for the one thing it can’t provide: the experience of touch.
Through virtual and augmented reality (also Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses), Meta’s technology aims to change how we live, how we connect with friends and family (imagine teleporting hologram-you to concerts or Thanksgiving dinners). Except for all its patter about bringing people together, Meta advances a fundamental human disconnection: It removes our bodies from the equation.
I, for one, will not go gentle into the metaverse. Not because I’m anti-technology (I’m not) or unreasonably attached to the pleasures of gel ink pens and hard-bound books (I may be). It’s because after struggling with anorexia and bulimia for more than 20 years, the last thing I want is technology that further estranges me from my body. “If we lose touch with ourselves,” the philosopher Richard Kearney writes, “we lose touch with the world. No tactile connection, no resonance between self and other.”
Months of lockdowns, Zoom cocktails and elbow dabs have left us in a touch crisis. Books like Mr. Kearney’s “Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense” and Sushma Subramanian’s “How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch,” both published this year, deal directly with this basic need. We’ve even developed a language that likens touch to basic sustenance and survival: Articles about “touch hunger” and “touch starvation” reveal just how vital this tactile connection is. Touch is central to our humanity, the first sense we develop.
Virtual world-builders know this, too, and are increasingly confronting the need for touch and developing new ways to recreate it. There’s Steve Yonahan’s Haptic Creature — a zoomorphic, robotic slothy thing that purrs and vibrates, influencing the emotional states of humans who pet and hold it. Texas A&M researchers are developing touch screens with “maximum haptic effect” to transmit textures (you’ll feel the difference between sateen and percale sheets online, they claim). Researchers at Johns Hopkins found incorporating haptic feedback into prosthetic upper limbs has made them easier for amputees to use.
Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, has been studying touch for more than four decades. Her research reveals the importance of touch from the earliest stages of human life. Pregnancy massage reduces low birth weight (as well as postpartum depression). Massaging the limbs of preterm infants with moderate pressure leads them to gain weight 47 percent faster. Touch produces oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that bonds parents to their newborns during “skin-to-skin time.” Touch improves attentiveness and quantitative performance (speed and accuracy on math problems). In adolescent mothers experiencing depression, massage decreases anxious behaviors. In patients with H.I.V., massage therapy leads to an increase in natural killer cells. Anorexia, autism, backaches, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and PTSD all respond to touch.
Even victims of sexual abuse benefit from therapeutic touch. After a month of twice-weekly massages, women studied by the Touch Research Institute experienced less depression and anxiety, and their cortisol levels had dropped. Women in the no-massage control group “reported an increasingly negative attitude toward touch.”
Reading about the work of Liisa Holsti, a neonatal pain researcher, and Karon MacLean, a haptics researcher, I was surprised how moved I could be learning about haptic technology. Their 2020 study introduced the Calmer, a rectangular incubator insert fitted with pneumatic bellows, subwoofers and a microcontroller that replicates a mother’s breathing rate, heartbeat and touch for preterm babies in the NICU. “Skin-to-skin time,” or “Kangaroo care,” when the baby is laid belly-down on the parent’s chest after birth, lessens newborn pain. If a parent can’t be present or a nurse is unavailable to comfort the baby during a routine procedure, such as a blood draw, the Calmer offers an alternative to human touch interaction, what a mother who participated in the study described as “a backup me.”
I was admittedly anti-touch for most of my life. (I’ve known other people with eating disorders who are, too; my equally anti-touch best friend and I would joke about the jangly awkwardness of our Christmas hug.) That changed when I had a baby and I discovered how the six-pound weight of my son on my chest felt like the heaviest love in the world. No wonder engineering the first sense is so important.
And while the expansion of the metaverse may incentivize teams like Facebook AI to develop further somatosensory simulations, I am skeptical of the values that will guide their work. Will they be as ethical as Dr. Holsti and Dr. MacLean, who took 10 years to trial three prototypes of a haptic designed to “replicate not replace” the maternal presence? Will Mr. Zuckerberg’s company be as sensitive to users’ feelings of disconnection or disembodiment when supplying them with sensory technologies like ReSkin, with its “scalable and inexpensive tactile-sensation modules”?
Meta signals Mr. Zuckerberg’s investment in the “embodied internet,” but it is ultimately a technology that keeps us apart, making us ever more alienated from our bodies and one another. Being disconnected from my body fed the self-hatred and perfectionism that facilitated my eating disorder. We don’t need to swap out our bodies with holographs and avatars. We need to nurture our sense of touch. A firm hand squeeze during grace, a cuddle with the dog on the couch, a hug like you mean it. In other words, the tactile joys of being alive.
JoAnna Novak is the author of, most recently, the short story collection “Meaningful Work” and the forthcoming “New Life,” a collection of poems.
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