The Disappearance of Tactile Feedback in Modern Electronics

I’m old enough to remember when television sets were hulking pieces of furniture. Though the images they produced pale in comparison with today’s technology and the choices for content were severely limited, there is something to be said about the interface of the appliance.

Changing the channel meant twisting a knob that had a flat piece you can grip with your thumb and index. Each small turn gives you a satisfying metallic clunk as the internals go through gates and notches. Volume adjustments are similar, you turn a knurled knob or move a sliding switch. The physicality is simple, intuitive, and reassuring.

But technology has progressed exponentially and we’re now able to pack a high-performance computer into a device the size of palms. And with the shrinking, most physical controls had to go. On smartphones, which have overtaken the television’s main role as the household’s entertainment provider, control is through touch manipulation of images. The touchscreen interface is dull, awkward, and sometimes unnerving. But that’s the price of miniaturization.