New Media, Old Thumbs

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.

Billie Best writes about her 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.   

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14 thoughts on “New Media, Old Thumbs

  1. Billie, I have observed the same among people all around me that are texting like crazy. So far, its happening everywhere except in church (so far). I wonder if my aging thumbs can keep up e. I try to use different fingers so that they can get a workout too especially at home at the dining table. It’s helpful in fighting against arthritis.

  2. Over the years I have twice suffered from trigger finger/trigger thumb, where the affected digit freezes and can’t bend. It’s painful, as is the treatment, which can involve injections or surgery. Therefore, I am very careful, and often use a stylus ( like now, on my iPad) to type. I used to type 100+ women, but I’m no longer in competition for typing speed.

    1. Good to hear from you, Kathy. I suspect you are doing as well with your stylus and many of us do with our digits. My partner suffers from fat finger syndrome. He can hit three letters at once, which isn’t much better than hitting none. I think our bodies weren’t designed for this.

  3. I too have watched in envy as people around me type so fast with their thumbs. But I began to have arthritis in my thumbs (and eventually more of my hands) at about age 40. I have still managed to avoid surgery all these 30 some years later, but I have sufficient pain that I never use my thumbs to type on my iPhone. Slow and frustratingly steady is the only way for me.

    1. Sorry to hear about your arthritis. I feel your pain, but mostly in my feet. The pain in my thumbs is new. Ah, age. We need to think of slow as a luxury. Yes, slow is better. And steady is a skill.

  4. I admire your persistence even if not on the Olympic level as our young pishers – but if it were up to me, all cell phones would immediately evaporate into green energy – which would make our planet smarter because we’d have to use our brains again! But – you must be admired!

    1. Thanks for the admiration. My thumbs appreciate it. I know what you mean about wishing away our cell phones. They take up a lot of space in our minds.

  5. I feel your pain, Billie. Back when I got my first iphone, I developed a nodule on my thumb knuckle requiring a visit to the doctor to treat it. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time swearing at auto correct. But now, due to need based on my eyesight going south while healing from cataract surgery, I just discovered dictation.. Now my struggle is getting over listening to my voice, but that’s a whole different issue.

    1. I have an Android and it has the swipe feature. No thumbs involved, although it didn’t always get the words right. Like earlier in this thought. I swiped doesn’t and it put in didn’t. Whatever happened to talking? Maybe our voiceboxes will shrink

      1. People have mentioned the swiping thing to me, and I have not tried it. I resist any suggestion my device makes because I find the interruption annoying. But I may have to get over that.

  6. I almost wanted to pay some kid to teach me how t escape my one index finger tap texting. so old man to any outside observer. i can’t for the life of me understand how they do it. how anyone can thumb write. and ALL my friends can do this. an unimaginable skill.
    i envy you being so up t date a texter, Bil

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