May 4, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 27°C

All thumbs

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2015-05-03

Heartwarming relevance.

hese are heady days for the human thumb, though the thumb might object to being mentioned in the same paragraph as the head since thumbs hate pro-head rhetoric and two remain remote. Yet remote is the reason thumbs are flourishing. The dumb old thumb is now the "scroller" of record. Without it, hand-held devices mope, their dependent humans with them. Long associated with fumbling and awkwardness — "He's all thumbs!" — the thumb is finally (and legitimately) an anatomical aristocrat.

Without thumbs, mobile devices have no agency. Two dexterous, tap-dancing thumbs can give small screens supersonic motion. That the mind can't keep up, let alone do much else than indulge the excitement of motion and emotion, matters little. Thumbs gladly seize on the glib mind's pushy orders, happy for their new sense of purpose.

What, until now, was the awkward thumb good for? Aside from indicating "yay" or "nay" — Roman emperor style — and later assisting ever-hopeful hitchhikers, it was the external appendix, taken for granted as the outlying fat boy on the fringes of the hand. While the index finger pointed, tapped, and generally made a name for itself, same with the trigger finger, the thumb just helped out in holding things, hardly sexy when you're not singled out. The thumb was for sucking (which it hated), for twiddling (which it also hated), and wasn't included in foreplay or sex (which it regretted; envying other fingers and mouths). When did a girl ever tell a boy he had nice thumbs? When did a boy tell another boy, about a girl, "Get a look at those two!"

This demoralizing history just got worse when the thumb was established as a bureaucratic means to distinguish between humans, tree-ring style. Long had the thumb craved a more energetic day-to-day role, but no, it was instead drenched in sour ink and then pressed against a blotter, usually guided by someone else's sweaty hands. Worse, this essential mark wasn't even designated a "thumbprint" but a "fingerprint," as if it, the thumb, were just another finger. Talk about abuse.

But it's a brave new world. Little screens have given big thumbs their evolutionary calling. Thumbs are collectively employed and constantly busy. They help mobilize humankind's obsessive downward-looking tendencies, and the literal remoteness that comes with it. They're proud conveyors of the digital light fantastic. Some have even learned to grow tired, a new feeling (since it was always other fingers that tapped and typed and grew weary). A few thumbs have experienced ache and pains for first time (and held summits with the back and eyes on their own history of pain).

The only fallout from all this progress concerns the pinkie, which, already alienated, feels even more left out. Forlorn and sometimes angry it again must reckon with being seen as too thin, too fragile and too far-flung for its own good — in a word, useless. A few bullying thumbs have taken to spreading disparaging jokes about ignorant pinkies (between scrolling).

Pinkies have responded by circulating a secessionist petition, seeking to leave the body altogether and live together on a beach, but since newly-scrolling thumbs now control what humans see and think, the petition is likely to fall on deaf ears (another mostly disenfranchised minority). This is just as long-suffering, newly lordly thumbs want it. They worked for millennia to gain the full attention of the mind, if not to distract it to their own fidgety ends. Mission accomplished.

Next step: dispensing with the head altogether.

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Christopher P. Winner

Christopher P. Winner is editor and publisher of The American. His column appears weekly.

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