The oldest buttons, says my encyclopedia, were ornamental rather than practical. Made from seashells and carved with geometric patterns, they were discovered in the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, the largest city of the Indus Valley civilization. The civilization dates back some 5,000 years and its cities, spread across present-day Pakistan, are known for the complex networks of drains, baths, and gutters used to distribute water to residents. Whether this was done for religious or hygienic purposes, nobody knows, and I find it hard to believe we can be sure about the buttons either.
Nails are at least as old as buttons, hand-forged from metal or carved from wood. The oldest examples are from grave goods: ancient Egyptian coffins, held together with wooden dowels, or luxury furniture studded with gold pins. The ancient Sumerians, contemporaries of the Egyptians, used a special type of clay nail to consecrate buildings. These were more like pegs than nails—about the size and shape of a demi-baguette and inscribed with dedications to gods and kings. They were buried in the walls and foundations of buildings, binding the physical structure to the spiritual realm.
And we have evidence of joinery even older than this. In 2012, archaeologists in modern-day Germany unearthed a neolithic well some 7,000 years old. It was built from oak timbers, slotted together with different types of mortise and tenon joints. The name might be unfamiliar but the design is simple: carpenters call the mortise “the hole” and the tenon “the tongue” and they slot together exactly as you might imagine. The well itself would have been a focal point for the community: a place of meetings, cooperation, and chatter. Based on the age of the timbers, we know that the structure was maintained for several generations: a hole sunk into the ground, the tongue of the people lapping the water.
All of these—nails, buttons, joints—could be considered among the first technologies of connection: methods of joining together disparate items and materials. The concept is so basic as to defy an origin story; so multivalent as to resist a unifying narrative. But let’s say that once upon time there were things that were separate and that combining them made a new thing that fulfilled a certain purpose. Maybe we were doing it with string and rope before nails and buttons were created that could survive the millennia to the present day. Certainly we clasped hands before we had language.
Even if origins are hazy, there’s history, invention, and development. Screws, for example, didn’t exist as a fastener in the ancient world. Jesus wasn’t screwed to the cross, he was nailed. But from the 1500s, these devices were manufactured in small numbers for jobs where the benefits of their design outweighed the demands of their construction.
Compare the screw and the nail. The screw is better for holding things together: it creates tensile strength. The nail is better at stopping things sliding apart: it resists shear pressure. Screws are stronger, but when they fail they break; nails are weaker, but when they fail they bend. Nails can be hammered home more quickly and efficiently, but screws can be removed and reinserted without potentially damaging impact. That’s why early applications of the latter include clocks and flintlock rifles: devices that need repair and tinkering to work. Some connections are all the better for being reversible.
It wasn’t until the invention of the lathe, the mother-tool of the Industrial Revolution, that screws became common, and by the turn of the 19th Century they could be produced in large numbers with incredible precision and uniformity. It’s these qualities that make the screw perfect for the machine age. Uniformity in components meant manufacturing could be compartmentalized, split into discrete and repeatable tasks. And in turn, the workers, too, become fungible, each able to step in for another; a unit of abstract labor power rather than an independent craftsperson. In Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 satire of the assembly line, Modern Times, it’s an endless line of nuts and bolts that undoes our—screwing one part into another, without ever seeing the final outcome.
Heidegger suggested that the essence of technology is the instrumental. Technology is a means to an end and so to understand it we must ask: what does it do? Technologies of connection hold things together, but they do so by removing space, by making the disconnected continuous.
With such a rubric, we can see that the defining inventions of the modern age—the telegraph, telephone, railroad, and airplane—are really technologies of connection. They connect one town to another and one country to the next, cinching together lives, cultures, and markets by eliminating the time it takes to get from A to B.
Such connective power is intoxicating. Until the 1800s, the limit of human movement was essentially organic: you could travel no faster than a horse can run or the wind can blow. But the new technology annihilated time and space (as a stock phrase of the era put it) and so encouraged fantasies of even farther-flung correspondence, of telephoning the dead and tuning your radio to heavenly frequencies.
“Was Telephoning to Heaven, but Policeman Got Him before Central Makes Connection,” read the headline of one 1905 report of “telephonic madness.” Such awe quickly gave way to skepticism as the technology became familiar. A 1923 comic strip depicted a woman tuning a radio and telling her friend, “Hush I hears Harps playing and sounds like wings flapping and people singing hymns. . . . Oh Ted—I bet I got Heaven—.” To which Ted replies: “Babe, you’re a nut—it’s that revival meeting in the church next door!”
Facebook, famously, facilitates connection. Its login screen promises that the site will help you “connect and share with the people in your life,” and for many years, it sported an illustration of default user profile pictures scattered around a map of the world, joined by dotted lines tracing arcs across oceans and continents. These trajectories always reminded me of simulations of missile strikes and nuclear war (the intercontinental ballistic missile being another technology designed to remove distance and bring countries closer).
Facebook is not exactly dishonest in its use of “connection” as a corporate cri de cœur. Like most social media platforms, connection is its chief resource and the product sold to individuals and corporations alike. You connect to people you know and advertisers connect to you. More accurately, they connect to a profile of your likes and interests collected by the company’s most important product: the Meta (née Facebook) Pixel.
The Meta Pixel is a piece of tracking software that businesses voluntarily insert into their websites. It identifies visitors based on tracking cookies in your browser and acts as an information exchange. It provides businesses with demographic data about their customers while tracking your activity for Facebook. That includes not only which sites you visit but even the actions you take on them, from items you put in a shopping cart but never purchase (and that then appear as adverts) to medical appointments and loan requests. Facebook collates this information and uses it to sell advertisements that account for 97% of the company’s $120 billion annual revenue.
There’s a slimness to the idea of “connections” in the digital age that allows Facebook to use the term with a catholic insincerity, encompassing both interpersonal and consumer relationships. What links these connections is an emphasis on quantity. Like threads of cotton wound into rope, slim connections become substantial in combination—strong enough to hold our attention or model our behavior.
Such slimness is typical of a certain sort of technology. The German-American philosopher Albert Borgmann separated technologies into “devices” on the one hand and “focal things and practices” on the other. Focal things, said Borgmann, require engagement and patience to produce an outcome or commodity, while devices are yielding and instantaneous. The academic L.M. Sacasas illustrates Borgmann’s categories by comparing the piano and the radio: both are technologies that produce music, but the radio only creates listeners while the piano threatens to turn us all into artists.
What sort of technology is a click, a follow, a view? Are these challenging or easy? Do they wrap us into the world like roots into the earth? Do they ask anything of us but our brief attention? But what else can we do? The connections of social media do not have to destroy the connections we form unmediated. The damage is that they weaken the desire; to telephone heaven and clasp hands.
Borgmann illustrates his concept of focality with a wood-burning stove, contrasting it with modern central heating. Like neolithic wells, the work required by the stove orders society. “Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household.” But I don’t have time to gather wood and whose fault is that.
I wouldn’t be without WhatsApp, I know that much. Look, we were on our way to my aunt’s funeral. She’d died, suddenly, answering the door to a neighbor. Dad and Mum and Beth are late: their train was cancelled. Dad’s stressed and Beth, sitting next to him in the cab, is messaging me. She’s shared her location and I’m watching their dot judder across London on my phone as I arrive at the funeral parlour myself.
We were never close with Pam’s side of the family. Her and Dad got on in a fashion, as he would put it, but there was some knot between them that I can’t explain here; some tangle that only decades of life lived at a distance can produce, and that the rest of us are only bystanders to. So I—hello Sheila, hello Lisa, hello Loretta, lovely to meet you all! No, see you all, of course; at Grandma and Grandpa’s funeral, yes, I remember, God, more than a decade ago.
I’m first from our side to arrive. Will’s on his way and I have his tie and cufflinks in my bag. We’ve had our distances too; brothers shouldn’t always live together, we said later. Dad’s still not here, the dot’s not moving, and Mum texted earlier: “You’ll have to represent the Vincents until we get there.” So I bob and gabble. Do you think the weather will hold? Is it far to the cemetery? Last chance for the loo?
I spot Will at the other end of the street, grinning and striding over in one of Dad’s old suits, so old it’s now back in fashion, and he repeats my rounds, shaking hands with his empty cuffs flapping. We shuffle our positions and our jackets. It’s spotting rain and we’re cluttering the pavement, the funeral parlor squeezed in between a dry cleaners and a caff. Someone (not me) announces that we can’t wait any longer; they’ll have to try and catch us at the cemetery. Dad’s supposed to give the eulogy.
We squeeze into one of the cars, Will right next to me; Lisa to his left, Sheila and Loretta behind us. There’s a burst of chat about the roads and the rain, then silence. We stare at the coffin ahead of us in the hearse. I look down and see Will’s cuffs are still unfolded, with the cufflinks inserted the wrong way. I nudge him, point, and without a word he presents his hands, turning them palms up like a prisoner or a supplicant. I reach down and grab his wrists.
In his Bremen lectures, Heidegger states that, because of technology, “all distances in time and space are shrinking” and “yet the hasty setting aside of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in a small amount of distance.” But sometimes, it does.
James Vincent is a journalist and writer from London who has worked and written for numerous publications, including The Independent, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books, Wired, New Statesman, and others. He is currently senior reporter from The Verge. His first book, Beyond Measure, tells the history of measurement and was a New Yorker, Times, and Economist Book of the Year in 2022.