David Mandl on Wed, 17 Apr 2002 21:52:13 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> 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 phone.

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 Nigeria.

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 Mobile.

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 dmandl@panix.com davem@wfmu.org http://www.wfmu.org/~davem

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