Object of the Year 2009






One of the year’s most iconic images was of the ink-stained fingers of voters in Zimbabwe. Indelible ink has prevented voter fraud in undeveloped areas since at least the 1920s, and George W. Bush boasted of the ink-stain of freedom in Iraq’s 2005 elections. But under Robert Mugabe’s vicious regime, those who could not show ink-stained proof of voting risked assault by Zanu-PF thugs, since the only candidate in the presidential runoff was Mugabe himself.


Superficially, few things could be less modern than the hand or its component fingers. In 1888, the anthropologist Frank Baker wrote, ‘The hand is so intimately connected with the brain as the executor of its behests that the savage mind naturally ascribes to it a separate and distinct force independent of the rest of the body – makes it, in fact, a fetish’. The ancient Greeks, for example, ‘cut from the body of a suicide the hand which had committed the deed and buried it in a separate place’.


In 2008, hands and fingers linked the most fragile societies and the most modern technologies. As Zimbabweans struggled with democracy, so millions were getting to grips with Apple’s iPhone which, for the first time, put multi-touch technology into the hands of the masses. Apple, Microsoft, and many others are now pioneering (and attempting to patent) a vocabulary of touch-screen ‘tactile events’ (tap, swipe, drag, flick, pinch), in the most significant innovation in gestural communication since the invention of sign language in 1775.


Palmistry has long held that hands can foretell the future, and fingers have tracked the past since the clay fingerprint seals of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). Now security systems are bridging this divide by using biometric finger and palm scans, as well as techniques of gesture recognition and authentication by ‘typing pattern’.


In an increasingly mediated society, where computers ‘handshake’ across networks and Facebookers ‘poke’ one another, human touch remains resolutely significant. In 2008, the ‘Harare handshake’ between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai proved almost as newsworthy as the ‘fist bump’ between Barack and Michelle Obama – sneered at by Fox News as a ‘terrorist fist jab’. In Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy engineered a curious three-way handshake with Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, while in N Ireland, Gordon Brown was baffled by Bush’s ‘homeboy’ handshake.

Brown also drew a clumsy distinction between receiving the Olympic torch and refusing to touch it, and before the Games, the Chinese were told it was rude to shake hands for longer than 3 seconds. (The buttock-obscured hand signals of bikini-clad Olympic beach volleyballers proved irresistible to the media.)


The hand also lingers as a tool in the communication of news, and as a culprit in the transmission of disease. And, as ever, individual fingers hold their own significance: a photograph of Madonna’s ringless fourth finger catalysed a wave of speculation about her marriage, while Conrad Black was snapped presenting a different digit to reporters outside his trial.


But we could be forgiven for letting much of this pass us by. As the anatomist Charles Bell wrote in his 1833 monograph on the hand, ‘Is it not the very perfection of the instrument which makes us insensible to its use?’