The Rise of the Hand (Behold Apple's Forthcoming Gesture Language)


A dozen years ago, NYU media scholar Mitch Stephens wrote an ambitious and fascinating book called The Rise of the Image, The Fall of the Word, imagining a future where fast-cut video images would emerge as a powerful new language. We would communicate and even think less through words and phrases and more through short bursts of animation and video; powerful new ideas would come from novel ways of video manipulation and transmission. If that wasn't a book ahead of its time, I don't know what is. 

Stephens' big impediment at the time (which he freely acknowledged) was that he couldn't be very specific about this future language, since it hadn't yet been invented. He could only draw on crude early hints, mostly from TV ads and films.

Today, a different language of the future presents itself in startlingly specific form, thanks to Apple, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the fine folks at 

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This new language is an intricate system of symbols created by pinches, swipes and flexes of the hand placed against touchscreen glass. 

We already use a few early pieces of this language on our Macs and iPhones: the two-finger scroll, the simple pinch-in and pinch-out, and a few others. But now we see that that's just the beginning. And while it may seem a little far-fetched to imagine that millions of people will be willing to learn dozens or hundreds (thousands?) of new gestures, it actually doesn't take much imagination to consider how powerful this could be. Think not just of simple iPad swiping; think also of a thin glove you might wear throughout the day that could wirelessly manipulate screens in your eyeglasses or on your wall; which could allow you to purchase a train ticket with just few nonchalant finger movements as you walk briskly through the station; which could allow you to tell your wife thirty miles away, "sorry I'm late" without taking your hands off the steering wheel. (From afar, she would forgive you with an equally effortless gesture of her hand.) 

And such new efficiencies could be the least of it. As Stephens suggested in his book, a new language also means new ideas; new ways of discovering the world and sharing with others. This is going to be pretty cool to watch as it unfolds.


(Update, May 1: A belated full disclosure; as I've acknowledged several times in previous bits on Apple, I do own Apple stock).

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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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