I was watching a young man text on his phone and his thumbs were pecking so fast they were a blur. Like hungry birds, heads bobbing, stabbing their beaks into seed, he was streaming thought, pure alphabet in the zone. There was nothing in the world but him and his thoughts. I wanted to read over his shoulder and count his typos while his thumbs tap-danced on plastic. He was writing faster than I can think. I’m fascinated by thumbs taking on this new role in communications. In the dark movie theater before the show starts, I look around the room and see a dozen people writing on their phones, cradling them with their eight fingers and typing with their thumbs.
How did we learn to do this? Using our thumbs this way, are we evolving our body parts in a new direction? What would Darwin say? I can’t remember what I did with my thumbs before I had a smart phone. Opposable thumbs are a feature accomplishment of evolution, and they’ve never been so busy. In the past if a person was not good with their hands we would say, they are all thumbs. As though thumbs were just for opening jars and holding fishing poles. Now being all thumbs could be an evolutionary advantage. In future generations human thumbs could become longer and more agile. Maybe we’ll grow little forks on the side like a hard hangnail to make it easier to hit those itty-bitty boxes on the keyboard. In my mind it’s ugly, but if our jaws are getting smaller because we’re not chewing as much, I’m sure our thumbs can get more flexible because we’re texting so much.
Remember when texting was called typing? I took typing class in high school, and I type on my phone every day. Texts, email, my shopping list, notes, comments, logins, and passwords. I’ve written blog posts and short stories on my phone. Also letters and recipes. And I read on my phone, scrolling for hours with my thumbs. My entire library of ebooks is on my phone, and I have a couple dozen media apps that keep me doom scrolling through current events. Reading and writing are how I spend most of my time, and I do that mostly on my phone with my thumbs.
Now I’m getting a square inch of arthritis in my defining appendage. The first joint on my right thumb aches a tiny ache presumably because that one joint is getting more of a workout these days than my hips or my knees. What does that say about my lifestyle? I’ve taken to putting a dot of tiger balm on the knuckle. It’s too small a pain to make it worth NSAIDs. But it’s painful enough to take up space in my thoughts.
Listen to what I’m complaining about. I would not want to go back to the days of skinning animals to make parchment, or pulling the feathers out of geese so I can have a quill pen to dip in my ink well, and then having to grow hay to feed the horse that delivers the mail. Texting is a lot easier than the Pony Express. Imagine what my hands would look like if I had to use a hammer and chisel to carve symbols into stone tablets. Those are some expensive typos. Nope. I’m not going to regret the pioneering spirit of human history just because my thumbs ache. If this tiny pain is the price of progress, I’ll pay it.