Talented thumb: Give it a big hand

It's the age of the multitasking digit, but for how long? By Sonja Lewis

March 02, 2003|By Cox News Service

It can't drive, but it can get you a ride out of town. It can't speak, but it can tell everyone you're A-OK.

It can't read, but it can spell. And very, very fast.

The human thumb. The wonder thumb.

The thumb whose time has come.

It's now the preferred digit for cell-phone dialing and pager messaging, video games, computer games and other handheld e-mail gadgets.

"All thumbs" has become a compliment.

In Tokyo, the thumbing on electronic gadgets is so pervasive that the youth are dubbed "oyayubi sadai," or the "thumb generation."

A study by a British academic researcher found that kids are now pointing and ringing doorbells with their thumbs. All the tasks that the older generation -- those of the rotary phone era -- assigned to the graceful index finger.

That's led Sadie Plant, director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick in Britain, to report that the thumb has overtaken its finger cousins as the hand's most muscled and dexterous digit. But the idea that the thumb is growing stronger or more agile as a result of its vital role in technology does not appear to be supported by scientific studies.

Some hand surgeons thumb their noses at the suggestion. "That's silly," said Dr. Gary McGillivary, an Emory University School of Medicine hand surgeon.

That doesn't mean he doesn't think the thumb is remarkable, or deserving of praise and admiration. "It's the most important part of the hand," he said. "Fifty percent of your hand functions is attributable to the thumb."

And need he say it? "It's what separates us."

The opposable thumb. Al-though monkeys and chimps have opposable thumbs, they're not able to do what we can do with ours. Many millions of years ago, our thumbs developed additional muscles that made them much more nimble. The thumb is controlled by nine individual muscles. They enable us to bowl, to tip a tea cup, to hold hands.

So vital for everyday functioning, McGillivary said, that he's amputated toes and rotated index fingers to fashion thumbs for people without. "It's that important," he said.

Thumbs allow for major multitasking, which is one of the primary reasons that manufacturers of hand-held communicators have us punch buttons with our thumbs and not our fingers.

How else but with a thumb does a mom hold and dial a cell phone in one hand while holding her child on her hip with the other?

On-the-job thumb injuries, like soreness and achiness, happen, of course. Research on whether technology is increasing thumb injuries appears spotty. And hand doctors say they have not seen more patients who appear to be victims of repetitive-strain injury.

The immediate future calls for even more thumb-activated devices.

Sean Aryai, director of marketing for Systemax Inc., said thumbs win, hands down, as the manipulator of computer extras, such as game pads and joy sticks. The $1.3 billion supplier of computers and other tech gear has an office in Suwanee, Ga.

Both Logitech and Microsoft make a computer mouse commanded by the thumb, instead of the index or middle finger.

Soak it up now, thumb.

While the thumb's popularity is at its zenith, it's only a matter of time before thumb-dependent devices go the way of the electric typewriter, said Joel Orr, a technology futurist who consults for major companies including Ford, IBM and Xerox.

Orr uses this example: When he's driving in his car, he can hit star and the speaker button and tell the phone a number to dial. It repeats it back to him and then dials. No thumbing involved.

"What we really want to do is talk to our little devices and have it take the words and do something for us," Orr said. "We're just about a year or two away from having small devices understanding what we say. And a couple more years away from when any man can buy it."

Thumb, your time in the spotlight may be just about done. But it was fun.

Thumbisms

* To stick out like a sore thumb -- to not belong

* Thumbing your nose -- a gesture of contempt

* Under my thumb -- under my control

* Thumbs down -- a signal of rejection

* Thumbs up -- a signal of acceptance

* To have a green thumb -- to be a gifted gardener

* Twiddling your thumbs -- doing nothing

* All thumbs -- clumsy

* Thumbnail -- A very small sketch, portrait or description

* Thumbsucker -- a put-down, meaning that someone is infantile

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