My husband recently gave me the new iPhone 4s for my birthday. I liked my old iPhone, but compared to this new one the old phone doesn't have anywhere near the same tactile quality. The choice of the materials plus the software interactivity creates a sensual, seamless tactile experience; a major feat when you consider that much of the impression of tactility is entirely non-physical and computer generated. While admiring my new phone I was reminded of a youthful episode that highlighted how much I value my physical relationship with the world.
During my "experimental" youth, I had an industrial design friend over at my flat prior to going out for the evening. During the course of the evening my friend J__ took out a "cigarette" and lighter and proceeded to try to light his cigarette. The lighter was one of those cheap clear plastic ones with a serrated wheel that rotates to create ignition. J__ was awkwardly spinning that stupid little wheel and getting no result. Appalled that a designer would deign to use such a poorly designed device, I made him stop what he was doing and light the cigarette with a wood match instead. On the first try the match gave a satisfying whoosh and lit. We proceeded to have fun.
It's such a small thing to light a match. There's the scratchy feeling of the match against the box and then a small physical pop before it bursts into flame with that whooshing sound. After you blow it out, there is a faint sulfuric scent in the air. The process is almost completely effortless and yet it engages every sense: sight, sound, touch, smell. And what did the lighter give us? A totally unsatisfying experience as J__ scraped his thumb again and again on that metal wheel. (Now let's be clear, a paper match is as bad as a lighter; it goes totally limp as you try to light it.)
I am concerned that with our society's increasing reliance on technology that there will continue to be a corresponding disconnect with the physical world. Certainly most products and spaces don't engage on a physical level and simply add to our sense of physical isolation. However, technology is clearly not the culprit in this equation, as Apple has proven with this phone.