Since the release of iconic devices like the Nintendo DS (2004) and particularly the first iPhone (2007), touchscreen interfaces have become almost omnipresent and arguably shaped a “touchscreen generation”. But how do touchscreen experiences operate as complex assemblages of material contingencies, electronics, algorithms and user interaction? And how do they function in actual software applications? In order to address these questions, the paper outlines a comparative software studies perspective, which comprises four consecutive steps. The introduction draws on cultural studies research on touchscreen interfaces to establish a theoretical framework for understanding the shifting epistemic status of the screen and the complex relationship between technical affordances and cognitive processes. Second, the paper explores aesthetic implications of the materiality of touchscreens, including the shift from vertical to horizontal navigational logic and the focus on physical contiguity in user experience design. Third, a series of short, interconnected case studies serves to illustrate the more specific implications on practices of media use and cultural production in a variety of applications. For example, apps like Vine evoke the ‘tangibility’ of digital material by allowing users to start and stop recording video by touching and releasing the screen respectively. Other, even more iconic examples include the swipe mechanic employed in Tinder and particularly the ‘swipe to unlock’ gesture used in the Android operating system. Finally, the previous findings are contextualised by briefly investigating the cultural imaginary of the touchscreen, which manifests itself in the form of haptic feedback as well as curved and even wearable touch-sensitive surfaces.
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