David Mandl on Wed, 17 Apr 2002 14:20:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] More on thumb evolution


April 17, 2002
In Digital Age, 'All Thumbs'
Is a Term of Highest Praise


In Tokyo, so many kids are pounding at new electronic gadgets with
their thumbs they're known as "oyayubi sedai" -- the "thumb
generation." Nokia Corp. sponsored a contest for the fastest Finnish
thumbs, where 2,700 players competed to thumb tap the highest score in
the "Snake" game included on Nokia phones. AT&T Wireless Services
Inc. is running ads featuring powerful thumbs that poke through
mittens, boxing gloves and golf gloves, ready for action on a mobile

Being "all thumbs" used to mean you were clumsy. But phones, wireless
e-mail devices, and all the other hand-held gadgets featuring "thumb
boards" are turning thumbs into universal index fingers for a
generation of teenagers, young adults and high-tech businesspeople.

Some young people now point and ring doorbells with their
thumbs. Thumbs are growing more muscled and dexterous, according to a
new cross-cultural study conducted by Sadie Plant, a free-lance
British culture and technology researcher. "The relationship between
technology and the users of technology is mutual," Ms. Plant says. "We
are changing each other."

While our Darwinian ancestors used their smallish thumbs to swing from
vines, we do a good job using our bigger ones to cradle small
keyboards and swoop around in fine patterns. So says Joseph Towles,
who is researching thumb mechanics at Stanford University. "We have
more ability to move the thumb with a wider range of motion than other
digits," Mr. Towles explains.

The ability to apply our thumbs nimbly enough to type separates humans
from other primates, says Randall Susman, a professor at the State
University of New York at Stony Brook who has studied thumb
development for the past 25 years. Though monkeys and chimpanzees have
opposable thumbs, they still have a tough time using tools with much
finesse. That's because a couple million years ago, early humans
developed additional muscles in their hands that enable modern man to,
say, move his thumbs while grasping a telephone.

Throughout the ages, thumbs have both comforted and caused
trouble. Babies get pleasure from sucking them. In ancient Rome,
thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the emperor could mean the difference
between life and death for gladiators in the arena. University of
Kansas Classics Professor Anthony Corbeill, who has researched the
subject, says the thumbs-up gesture was actually the kill signal.

The thumbs-up signal of approval arrived in World War II, with
American G.I.s serving in Europe. But even today, an extended thumb
with a sweep of the hand means something akin to "up yours" in

Thumb plucking has been common throughout most of Africa for centuries
among mbira players, who produce a plethora of percussive tones by
plucking with their thumbs on rows of metal rods. The thing is a kind
of thumb piano.

Thumbs began their quest for technological supremacy over index
fingers in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the joysticks and
hand-held controllers of video-game systems. Jim Joseph, an
administrator at an early-childhood center in Manhattan, remembers
playing the original "Legend of Zelda" back in 1988 on his Nintendo
for so long he would develop what was came to be dubbed "Nintendo
thumb": a sore, burning pain at the base of the poor digit. "I would
play up to three hours, but would need a break at some point because
it would get really frustrating," says Mr. Joseph, now 22. In 1990,
cases of what is known as "Nintendinitis" were described in the New
England Journal of Medicine.

Grown-up thumbs took over with mobile-phone text messaging only a few
years later. "Texting," as it's known, is particularly popular in
Europe and East Asia, where phone users punch individual keys multiple
times to spell out 160-character messages. British thumbs alone type
more than 1.4 billion text messages each month, according to Virgin

Now, U.S. cellphone carriers and hand-held-device makers are hoping to
tap into the thumb market, too. The popular BlackBerry wireless e-mail
device features a keyboard for thumb-typers. Over the past eight
months, computer-accessory makers and hand-held-computer makers such
as Handspring Inc. and Sony Corp. have released BlackBerry-style thumb
boards, largely as replacements for the Palm-style graffiti-stylus
drawing, which itself was meant to replace keyboards.

But thumb typing involves some growing pains. Working on keys half the
size of an average thumb tip, the user must cultivate a delicate
touch. For those whose thumbs aren't petite, there is this "splat
problem," says Michael Ryan, a New York lawyer who uses his BlackBerry
during down-time on conference calls. A "splat" occurs when a big old
thumb hits two or more keys by mistake. Mark Guibert, vice president
of Research In Motion, the company that makes the BlackBerry, says the
oblong shape of the BlackBerry key was designed to maximize the
surface area for the thumb to hit the key. The key to avoiding splat
is to use only the very tip of the thumb, an acquired knack.

Ms. Plant, in her eight-city survey, which was sponsored by Motorola
Inc., noticed that less-experienced users tended to employ one or
several fingers to access thumb boards. But the youthful and seasoned
tend to use both thumbs ambidextrously, barely even looking at the
keys as they rapidly do their all-thumbs touch-typing. BlackBerry
officials say that new users of their system can quickly reach up to
40 words per minute.

Increasingly, doctors and users are worrying that overuse of the thumb
can lead to repetitive-strain injury. Anthony Barrett, a 24-year-old
barrister in London, says he's a victim of TMI -- text message injury
-- after four years of punching out more than 500 text messages per
month left him with serious pain in his thumb joints. "The rest of my
fingers were fine," says Mr. Barrett, who touch-types with all 10
fingers at work.

In response to a host of RSI complaints, U.K. telecom network Virgin
Mobile recently undertook a campaign called "How to Practice Safe
Text" in concert with the British Chiropractic Association. To avoid
injury, it recommends a series of hand-squeeze exercises with a
"texterciser," a foam rectangle that looks just like a
cellphone. There are also shoulder shrugs, wrist and neck
stretches. Mr. Barrett says his thumb pain has diminished somewhat
since he started doing the exercises and cut down his text messaging
-- to around 300 a month.

Dave Mandl

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