how the touchscreen transformed the internet

i think one of the more underappreciated factors in the widespread adoption of the internet is the humble and now-nearly ubiquitous touchscreen. in fact, were it not for the touchscreen interface, the internet may well have remained relatively niche indefinitely, forever beyond the reach of many. this is for one simple reason: using a touchscreen is so simple and intuitive that it's basically the last word in accessibility.

it can be hard to imagine if you've become adept by using them for years, but keyboards and mice are not exactly the easiest to use. it takes a good amount of practice to get decent at typing, and if you never have any good reason to do so, like for your job or chatting in minecraft, you may never get all that good at it. as a result, the fact that the internet primarily had to be accessed using keyboards and mice unintentionally served as a passive form of gatekeeping – a filter.

but this all changed with the introduction of touchscreens as an interface. even toddlers and babies, lacking the fine motor control required to operate a mouse (let alone a keyboard), could now be let loose on youtube, able to tap away at mommy's ipad on the most alluring video thumbnails with their pudgy, inexperienced fingers. for similar reasons, even the most technologically-inept, geriatric boomers now found themselves unleashed on the internet as well. these are only the most extreme examples – consider also the well-to-do millions who didn't use the internet just because it was somewhat inconvenient and only needed a small nudge, like having it right there on their new "smart"phone.

physical accessibility, however, is only part of the story. touchscreens also made accessing and navigating the internet easier to understand. the monitor is a closed window – you can see the internet, but you can't touch it. the interfaces, the mouse and the keyboard, are still solidly of this world, and not of the world behind the screen, the internet. there is an appreciable sensation of physicality in the movement of keyboard buttons as they are being pressed, or the travels of the mouse across the mousepad. there is no direct, one-to-one correspondence between their physical movements and what "occurs" on the screen: the physical movements have to be transmitted, transferred, transposed, translated firstnote that the latin prefix "trans-" means "the other side of" (its opposite is "cis-"). for example, when you move your mouse in a straight line parallel to your monitor, the cursor will reach the edge of the screen far sooner than your mouse reaches the edge of the monitor. distances are not equivalent between the two worlds. what this results in is a fundamental disconnect, a sense of distance between you and what's happening on screen, what's happening in the internet.

what the touchscreen does is wash away the barriers, wash away the gap. the physical gatekeepers, the mouse and the keyboard, are gone. the monitor is a closed window, but the touchscreen is an open one, a portal. in a way, it is a reification of the internet. the distance is no more, your fingers enter the internet through the touchscreen and interact with it directly, tapping touching swiping. no intermediaries, no proxies, no translations are required, your physical motions are immediately operant upon the world within the screen. a button on the internet shown on a touchscreen works the same way as a physical button: you press it with your finger. it is no longer just a representation of a button that you press with a representation of a finger (a cursor controlled by a mouse). for all intents and purposes, it is a real button. touchscreens reify the internet, and thus make it more comprehensible to those who have difficulty comprehending the abstract.

the accessibility revolution engendered by the touchscreen was the beginning of the modern internet. some also say it was the end of the internet – an "eternal september" to end them all. where there are a lot of people, there is also a lot of money to be made. gatekeeping is a dirty word now, but do some gates need to be kept?