[FOUNTAIN]An overlooked digit finally gets its due

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[FOUNTAIN]An overlooked digit finally gets its due

For decades, modern technology neglected the thumb. As the other fingers danced together on a typewriter or computer keyboard, the thumb had nothing to do but press the space bar. The Internet revolution, whose influence on human civilization has been second only to the industrial revolution, failed to reinstate the thumb to its past glory. It did play a large part in moving the computer mouse (along with the little finger), but that was nothing compared to the importance of the index and middle fingers, which got the honor of “clicking.” Considering how crucial the thumb is to the functioning of the hand, the cold shoulder it received from the new technology was rather surprising.
The thumb is the shortest finger on the hand, but also the strongest. “Pollex,” a Latin word for thumb, originated from “pollere,” a verb meaning “reinforce.” An upraised thumb is universally understood as an affirmation, along the lines of “good job” or “you’re the best.” But the thumb’s real greatness lies in the uniqueness of its mechanism.
During an average person’s lifetime, his fingers flex about 25 million times. About 45 percent of those movements are made by the thumb, because it is the one finger that counters the movement of the other four. That thumb movement, called “apposition,” single-handedly (so to speak) lit the fire of human civilization.
It was the thumb that made it possible for human beings to walk upright and create tools. The creation of tools led to the development of the brain, and the more advanced brain led to more sophisticated functioning in the hands. This feedback is all owed to the thumb. Its importance cannot be overemphasized. Isaac Newton admired its faculty so much that he said, “In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.”
Now that the era of ubiquitous communication has come, in which people can freely access the global information network regardless of location, the thumb is starting to get the respect it deserves. The volume of mobile phone text messages, which are mainly transmitted by the thumb, has surpassed the volume of actual mobile phone voice conversations. In the 2002 election, countless thumbs united to elect a president. The situation is similar abroad. In the Philippines, the text message “Go to Edsa. Wear Black to Mourn the Death of Democracy” ousted President Estrada from power. The “Orange Revolution” of Ukraine and the “Cedar Revolution” of Lebanon also resulted from thumb movements. The golden age of the thumb, which once more finds itself the harbinger of revolutionary change, has arrived.


by Lee Hoon-beom

The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.
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