Hands captured by a smartphone. Photo by Tuva Beyer Broch.

Digital—a word derived from the Latin for finger. HandsOn is about the extraordinary ways our fingers and hands create, shape, and preserve interaction with and between other senses, feelings, memories, other humans, and other dimensions of life. In pursuing a broad understanding of human hands, this series takes seriously David Howes’s call for the revolution of the senses (2021). His sensorial turn recalls previous readings (Howes 2003) and presses anthropologists to recall and account for the emplaced, affective, and temporal sense of living. Human nature, Howes reminds us, is sensorially resolved. Haptic, visual, olfactory, balance, taste, hearing—it is all connected. To be human is to be sensorial, and for us to query the human condition, as anthropologists should do, we must take into account our experiences, practices, and recklessness as we sense the world.

The essays in this series connect to different areas of the sensory cortex, yet they all address the ways in which hands sense, absorb, or are indifferent to the digital universe that seems now to define human existence. But then there are the hands, the fingers, that might touch but are not subsumed by that seemingly all-enveloping digital cloud. Our contributions set out across subfields, regions, and genres. In all the pieces the protagonist is the hand that can do what hands have always done—pick berries, cook, insult, caress, fix—but that can also, by a mere touch or click, send a photo, book a vacation, share a thought, or simply chat. Hands take on agency both despite and apart from digitalization, and also by means of digitalization. HandsOn is about the extraordinary ways our digits sense feelings and memories, as well as other beings and things, of life in an apparently digital era that has not eradicated those pre-Internet connections, but in some ways has expanded them. This busyness of the hands, then, is the entry-point for this forum. The contexts of the contributions offer vivid portraits of hands and their various allegorical personas, and the extraordinary ways they sense, guide and grip existence within or without downloadables.

The hand—this particular tool of the body—rehearses, shapes, and preserves playfulness and intentness with and between our senses, connecting mind and body, triggering feelings, emotions, and memory. HandsOn is part of SCA’s website, rather than holding the series in their hands, the readers will scroll over a screen, clicking from one essay to the other. What is paused, lost, or gained when our hands are unable to physically feel, or touch, or hold the thing we are reading? That is where Anna Mann and Annemarie Mol’s approach to body excels as they, with colleagues, situate the senses and sensibilities in an ecology of embodied dependence (Mann et al. 2011). Sensoriality, at the temporal level, may represent the signs of the time. At an extreme juncture, leaving open human interrelations with the senses. One cannot be without the other, as it were (Mann et al. 2011).

Taking on the biography of hands, we ask what happens when our fingers scroll over the smartphone screen searching for self or other, or self in other, searching for love or to maintain a friendship. What emotions, memories, sensations arise when fingers are hurting, the middle finger is raging, hands harvest, or feed? Lined, freckled, waxen, firm, calloused, glowing, single or parred—the skin on our hands has stories to tell.

Maybe the most extraordinary story about the hand is the way it moves and what it reveals about being human. Hands; creative, working, surviving, and touching hands have left traces of lived life since the beginning of time (Al-Shamahi 2021). Traces that bear the marks and histories of time. Certainly, when hands touch the digital, they leave trails that trace and capture fragments of life in new and eternal ways, seemingly untouched and unchanged by time. Cybernetics—from the Greek, meaning steersmen—is what seems to steer and connect the different worlds; both “steering” the senses housed within the confines of the body to connect with the world outside it, and in the very material, haptic connection of the fingers on the keyboard or the screen, opening another world of communication and connection. The possibility of exerting control with able or disabled hands, at times with an assist from the cyber world, touches on something unearthly and miraculous in the interplay between the ethereal and the material. In the end hands take us to future, past, and immediate worlds, on and offline, almost always choreographed by hand.


Our collaboration on hands grew out of a conversation between the two of us during a workshop held in Oslo, January 2022. The meeting was part of the Private Lives research project, funded by the Research Council Norway (RCN). We would like to thank the project team Marianne E. Lien, Cecilia Salinas, Tom Bratrud, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Karen Waltorp, and Brit Ross Winthereik. We also thank Cultural Anthropology and its editors for their enthusiasm and for giving us a HandsOn opportunity. This collection of essays would not have been possible without the contributors—it was a pleasure working with you. Grandpa, Ariélle, and Arion, thank you for letting us share pictures of your hands touching, tying the palomar knot and creating memories of fishing worlds.


Al-Shamahi, Ella. 2021. The Handshake: A Gripping History. London: Profile Books.

Howes, David. 2003. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Howes, David. 2021. “Afterword: The Sensory Revolution Comes of Age.Cambridge Anthropology 39, no. 2: 128–137.

Mann, Anna, Annemarie Mol, Priya Satalkar, Amalinda Savirani, Nasima Selim, Malini Sur, and Emily Yates-Doerr. 2011. “Mixing Methods, Tasting Fingers: Notes on an Ethnographic Experiment.HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1, no. 1: 221–243.