_The Hand Tool (H)________
░ and its Discontents______
_Amelyn Ng________________
Whose labor is behind Adobe Photoshop’s (visible) Hand? The white glove is a classic skeuomorphism of media labor: the archivist’s microfiche requires meticulous handling; the printmaker’s work demands ink-stain protection. But what we “handle” in Photoshop today is neither fragile film nor paper but robust, rewritable pixel. This digital asepticism raises skepticism — who or what exactly are we trying to preserve or keep “pristine”?
This derivative digital prosthesis is donned daily as we navigate computer workspaces. Adobe PDF’s cartoon hand has been theorized as, literally, “[getting] to grips with information.” [1] Historian Lisa Gitelman observes a contradiction in the “downsizing and displacement of labor in the work practices it supports.” [2] Computer routines have replaced human ones; interface parameters have reduced human agents to readers and “users.” (Presumably generic, able-bodied, computer-literate, depoliticized, subscribing, consuming users.)
Photoshop toolbars over the years. 
Glove, or Hand? It’s hard to ascertain (and in fact, seems to have changed over time). [3] For media theorist Michele White, the white Hand’s graphic simplicity and apparent application-neutrality secures “white users” as the dominant “race... through the interface.” [4] 
Or is the (not-my-)Hand instead an avatar for servile alienation? Nineteenth-century minstrel shows used costume gloves as props for racist parodies. “White-glove service” connotes servitude to an upper class. The “white-glove building” is staffed with an on-demand, around-the-clock doorman. [5] Note Charlie Chaplin’s role in IBM’s 5150 personal computer advertisements. Ultimately, the “handiwork” performed by our innocuous default icon reinforces both the identity of the white male technician conducting pristine work, and the ceaseless digital toil of a burgeoning class of immaterial laborers.
Still from IBM Personal Computer AT video advertisement, 1986.

NOTES ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓

[1] Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 103.

[2] Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 129. Sigfried Giedion has made a similar comment on the (physical, laboring) hand: “The hand can be trained to a degree of automatic facility. But one power is denied it: to remain unvaryingly active. It must always be grasping, holding, manipulating.” From “The Hand,” in Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1948), 47.

[3] Adobe Photoshop’s toolbars have featured various glove-to-hand ratios over the years. Early interfaces (1987–2000) feature a flat, white outline without any terminus at the wrist — that is, a hand. The next generation (2001–2011) acquires tonal shading sophistication that could imply a glove or not — yet still no wrist. When Photoshop later overhauled its user interface with new icons (2012–2016), it adopted a simpler hand to work with both light and dark color-schemes; against the darker default UI, the Hand looked much more glove-like. In recent versions (from 2017), the Hand terminates — but in a curious curve: shifting from an aerial view to what looks like a palm! Given the semiotic “stop”/“halt” trope of gloved traffic cops, could the possibly-gloved, possibly-white Hand Tool now also invite discourses on social control and policing?

[4] Michele White, “The Hand Blocks the Screen: A Consideration of the Ways the Interface Is Raced,” HASTAC, August 18, 2009.

[5] See Ronda Kaysen, “A White-Glove State of Mind,” New York Times, December 19, 2013.

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