The Promise and Perils of a World Filled With Touchscreens

Corning’s futuristic video about touchscreens of the future offers lessons about why they’re not so great after all.

Touchscreens may not be all they're cracked up to be, but don't tell that to the glass-tech fantasists at Corning, who have dreamed up a spotless, shiny future in which everydamnthing around you is made of 100% Pure Glass Awesome?. The video is so gorgeously executed, it's easy to see their point:

Many of these supposedly just-around-the-corner touchscreen innovations do look pretty awesome. A transparent smartphone that wirelessly connects to a huge screen-table? Sign me up! A bathroom mirror that shows me the news? Yes please! Flexible-glass displays that can be rolled up like blueprints or tossed on the nightstand like a magazine? Bring it, baby!


But some of the other features of this all-glass future give me the willies — like sheer, featureless touchscreen car dashboards. Sure, displaying big maps is pretty neat, but in order to use center-console controls safely while driving, you have to be able to do so without looking. How are you supposed to find the radio volume or cue up your next turn on a map when, as far as your fingers are concerned, there's nothing there? Hell, I can't even advance tracks on my iPod Touch without stopping cold in the middle of the sidewalk and concentrating on the screen. I hope Corning's future involves mass transit, because I sure as hell don't want to be driving on roads full of these glasstacular deathtraps.


Corning massively underestimates the power and importance of physical affordances. The video shows some kind of fashiony person fanning out a deck of photographs on his sleek touchscreen workspace, but if you ever saw The September Issue, the documentary about how an issue of Vogue gets put together, you'll know that this is pretty much a crock: art directors and editors-in-chief still love to work with hard copies (in addition to digital) because there are no limits to what you can do with it when you're experimenting with layouts, combinations, edits, and everything else. With a virtual interface, you're stuck with what it thinks you'll want to do, and no more. Just because you see a "stack" of images on your Touchglass MakeScreen®, there's no way of knowing for sure how the system will actually let you interact with them; this is why every iPad app under the sun needs to include a "cheat sheet" for using its supposedly perfectly intuitive interface.


By the end of Corning's five-minute video, my initial excitement had curdled into a kind of free-floating dread about what it would feel like to actually live in such a physically sterilized, too-virtual world — where even your kids' drawings on the refrigerator are nothing but evanescent ghostware. Don't get me wrong: touchscreens are amazing, and Corning's glass technology will surely make them even more so. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And after watching Corning's all-glass, all-the-time vision of the future, a hammer is exactly what I wanted to reach for.