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From Hands Like These

Leave it to a kid to expose your most embarrassing weaknesses. “Dad can’t shuffle,” my daughter reminded everyone during a game of crazy eights. It’s true. The best I can do with cards is mash them together in primitive clumps. My daughter, at eight, already has her mother’s knack for cutting a deck into equal halves and riffling them into a perfect rectangular prism as if by magic.

I have high hopes for those hands. They draw people with tiny, individual teeth and maple trees with a thousand trifoil leaves. They have mastered Book Two in the Music Tree piano series. They can dress and undress a Barbie faster than I can remove my hat, and are teaching themselves cursive. What won’t they do in time?

From hands like these come civilizations. The world as we know it—from our buildings and automobiles, to the iPhones flying off Chinese assembly lines, to the works of Michelangelo or Picasso, to the prestidigitation of Eric Clapton, to brain surgery, to space telescopes, to your kitchen cabinet—has been built by human hands. More specifically, by hands that have learned to make tools an extension of the mind and body.

Have you ever seen one of those distorted anatomical diagrams—they’re called cortical homunculi—where the size of each body part shows how much of the brain’s sensory and motor processing the part uses? The hands are always enormous, bigger than anything else. That’s how important hands are to our development as individuals, and to our evolution as a species. It is with some alarm, then, that I note the gradual disappearance of tasks that require manual skill. In this digital, virtual age, our hands are doing fewer kinds of things: we have a shrinking repertoire of physical gestures.

Take the act of writing. People once cultivated beautiful penmanship. That went to the dogs when the typewriter came along, but typists still had to be dexterous—those balky manual keys needed to be romanced, not brutalized. Compare that to the frenzy of keystrokes, every third one a backspace, that passes for typing on a computer keyboard. Any number of other tasks that used to be done with direct, hands-on contact—filing and retrieving, cutting and trimming, drawing, grasping, sorting—are instead done by mouse. Lately, mousing skills have been giving way to the even more limited gestures of the smartphone and tablet: essentially, pointing and pinching. And that is to say nothing about the fate of manual skills in games, music, and cooking.

What kind of a world will people build if they are accustomed to doing less with their hands? I’ve no idea. But I do know that until our minds are uploaded onto computers and we are absorbed wholesale into cyberspace, the world will need people who can make and repair things, and shuffle a deck of cards like lightning.


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