Contact/less Exchange

Sarah Vowden

Contactless technologies have increasingly entered the financial terrain of small payments, reducing the transaction to the waving of a card over the payment terminal, or at the touch of a thumb with biometrics integrated into mobile phones, forming a new material encounter of the everyday transaction. The dwindling popularity of using cash exposes our embodied disciplining of contactless technologies, and the dematerialisation of exchange practices. Using Near-field-Communication technology, contactless devices produce an electromagnetic induction via its internal antenna, and data is transmitted via radio waves between the card and the payment terminal at a maximum distance of 4cm.​*​ It is this critical space in which multiple scales of contact take place; the prosthetic tendency of contactless as an extension of the body, the reduced social encounter, the exchange of personal data between multiple corporate stakeholders, and the increasingly biometric uses of contactless as it shifts from the plastic card, to the watch, to under the skin. 

I use the 4cm space mobilised by Near-Field Communication technology, as a spatial framework to understand the condition of Contact/less. I dissect the term Contact/less as a marker of the absence of touch in a contactless transaction and use this as an aesthetic lens to understand a broader relation between modes of technological exchange and the incongruities of touch, that has been increasingly shaped by the Coronavirus pandemic. 

When thinking of the simple contactless transaction, the card and card reader do not touch, but come close to the electromagnetic waves, at a specific radio frequency of 13.56 Mhz.​†​ Thinking of this moment of communication as also one of repulsion, activates the 4cm of contactless not as a void, but an active space of interaction or as Karen Barad describes it as intra-action.​‡​ In contact/less, there is a mutual process of intra-action as the device and the card reader communicate through a performative process of mattering. Even beyond the material infrastructures of exchange (the device, the Point of Sale, wireless infrastructures, the mass hardware of datacenters), the 4cm of contact/less is a space in which multiple material-discursive practices are at play, from the algorithm of one’s personal data being exchanged between various mediators in the banking sector, to the performative gestures of mutual obligation, like that of the handshake.  

Contact/less is a condition, one that pervades through the urban milieu. Capital is continuously seeking an intimate bounding with the body whether this is as the periphery of the skin or if it crosses the boundary of the flesh through biometrics, but these technologies crucially retain a micro-distance from the body. It is this ontological dilemma that marks contact/less’ radical reimagining of touch and the dematerialisation of the practices of exchange. This notion of contact/less exchange is not limited to the financial sector; multiple technologies have proliferated in urban environments from wearable computing devices, biometrically guarded locks and travel cards. We can now glide seamlessly through the city, scanning hands without touch, admitted entrance without the fumbling of keys, and wearing our credit cards on wrist-bound watches as new gestures of the everyday transaction emerge. Contact/less is realised through the stitching of multiple technologies in the urban fabric; from the mobilisation of radio waves in near-field communication, radar, infrared biometrics, to the humble barcode. Trackability extends beyond the object, redirecting its gaze onto the body; a new dance of coordination between the human and the machine. Contact/less is thus a condition that recalibrates contact in the urban milieu through technological and algorithmic mediation. Contact/less seeks contact, yet not of the fleshy kind; it always retains a critical distance from the body and a measured calculation of the threshold of touch. 

Yet, are touch and contact interchangeable terms? Touch is an extension of contact, in that it has a plethora of meanings from its physiological relationship with the skin, to communication, sexuality, empathy and violence. Touch’s natural erring to the poetic allows for infinite interpretations of touch, from the sensuous contact of two hands touching, to the haptic design of the interface. Touch however has no stable definition, and through history has seen its place in the hierarchy of the senses contested. Since the Enlightenment, vision and touch have become disembodied, privileging the ocular as the pillar of perception. The contentious narratives of touch create greater ambiguity in the parameters of its linguistic, physiological and psychic reach. Even Marx oscillated between the need for heightened sensory readings of workers’ conditions under industrial capitalism, to scientific rationality favoring the visual as the empirical method of enquiry.​§​ Touch is often indeterminate, ungraspable by language or sentiment, and contactless technologies reaffirm this ambiguity of touch. Michele Serres repositions touch as a sense that extends beyond the epidermal limits of the skin; there is always an excess in touch, yet “there is no word corresponding to touch to designate the untouchable or intangible, as there is for the invisible which is present in, or absent from what is seen.”​¶​ For Serres, there is an absent language of untouchability, and in this sense, we may think of Contact/less as a technologically-mediated expression of this absent term. 

When Karen Barad reads touch through the lens of quantum physics, nothing can ever truly be “touched” but is the electromagnetic repulsion between two atoms. Barad asks “when two hands touch, how close are they? What is the measure of closeness? Which disciplinary knowledge foundations, political parties, religious and cultural traditions, infectious disease authorities, immigration officials, and policymakers do not have a stake in, if not a measured answer to that question?”.​#​ That question of measured contact has become the new foundational logic to contactless technologies under the global strain of Covid-19. 

In the current pandemic moment, our social lives are now reimagined by a fearful reluctance of touch.

When I now wander the city, I look for the traces of the contact/less 4cm, yet instead, I am confronted by signs declaring a 2m distance of safety. Our language is now saturated by mutterings of the non-touch, just as our bodies recalibrate to new choreographies of contact. The 4cm has now swelled 2m, and is dictated by new categories of “social distancing”, now the descriptive prefix of every socialised activity. As contact/less does not operate at the border of the skin but creates a space of extension, this is similarly translated in our everyday cautiousness to be close and intimate with others. Financial institutions and tech firms will inevitably continue to monetise these relations as we become more reliant on a contact that retains a critical micro-distance from the skin, and offers boundless potential for data gathering and biometric extraction. 

As a new lexicon of closeness emerges in the era of social distancing, a contactless futurity will inevitably emerge. As newly re-articulated neoliberal subjects under covid-19, the pandemic has revealed the ubiquitous logic of contactless technologies to mark us as “users”. No contact/less space, when forged by corporate interest is an absent one, but a space of possibility and profit. Instead, contact/less allows capital to intimately circle the body, but always, and crucially, at a micro distance of the skin. 

  1. ​*​
    Arcese, G. Campagna, G. Flammini, S. and Martucci, O.“Near Field Communication: Technology and Market Trends” Technologies, 2(3) (2014) pp 143-163; p. 144
  2. ​†​
  3. ​‡​
    Barad, Karen. “On Touching—the Inhuman That Therefore I Am” differences (2012) 23 (3): 206-223., p. 215
  4. ​§​
    Howes, David. Sensual Relations: Engaging in Culture & Social Theory (University of Michigan Press, 2003) p. 205
  5. ​¶​
    Serres, Michel. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (London, Continuum: 2008), p. 26
  6. ​#​
    Barad, Karen. “On Touching” p. 209