My review of Edward Tenner’s Our Own Devices came out in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times Book Review.
I haven’t actually seen it myself: since I’m not a subscriber, I can’t get to the online version, and I was at a school function all day yesterday and didn’t get to Kepler’s, where I usually go to satisfy my periodical-purchasing needs. Oh well. They’ll send me reprints.
It was a fairly positive review overall: Tenner deserves credit for trying to do some pretty demanding things in the book, and recognizing the importance of a whole class of artifacts that normally get very little attention among historians of technology.
[To the tune of The Who, “My Wife,” from the album The Ultimate Collection (Disc 1).]
The gadgets of our lives
Political campaigns and wars generate plentiful records that can be spun into entertaining stories. The lives of familiar objects, in contrast, are scantily documented (if at all) and rarely follow a straight narrative line. Yet, as Henry Petroski and other historians of technology have demonstrated, it is possible to write histories of mundane artifacts — the pencil, the paper clip, the grocery bag — that are anything but mundane.
Edward Tenner seeks to take these kinds of studies to a new, more intimate level in “Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology,” which examines how the human body is changed by “body technologies” — the things we wear, sit in and manipulate. (The forthcoming paperback edition’s subtitle, “How Technology Remakes Humanity,” is clearer and more ambitious.) Writing the history of something as common as the flip-flop sandal is difficult enough; explaining how it has changed the way people around the world walk and perceive their environments is much harder.
It’s one thing to explain how to ride a bicycle; imagine tracing how cycling techniques have changed over the last century as bicycle design, road design, racing strategy, even shoes and clothing evolved. That gives you a sense of the challenge Tenner set out for himself.
In “Our Own Devices,” Tenner explores not only what engineers intend objects to do but how people actually use them. For users are great innovators, finding purposes for devices that their creators never imagined. This interplay between technologies and “technique,” the skills and uses that define a device’s life in the real world, is the book’s organizing point, connecting stories of baby bottles, sandals, running shoes, office seating, recliners, musical and typewriter keyboards, eyeglasses and helmets.
One might think that as technologies advance, technique would become less important, since new technologies can render older skills irrelevant; in fact, they often create a demand for new ones. Thanks to cable TV, we no longer have to fiddle with antennas; but today’s remote controls virtually require graduate degrees in engineering to understand. Computer users may no longer have to write their own programs, but they must create and manage systems that connect CPUs, monitors, MP3 players, digital cameras and other equipment. (This has given rise to “cable management” consultants, who bring order to their clients’ desks.) Now, as scientists work to perfect implants, prostheses and drugs to enhance concentration and memory, we seem poised to take body technology to a new threshold; studying its history might help us anticipate how these new technologies might “bite back,” as Tenner put it in his 1997 book, “Why Things Bite Back.”
The interplay between technology and technique is different in each chapter. In a few cases, Tenner shows that science drives design innovation: Office chairs, running shoes and helmets have been revolutionized in the last 50 years by ergonomics. Technology and techniques also can either inhibit or accelerate the other’s development. In some cases, the investment of time and energy required to learn a new technique inhibits the technical innovations that would make old ones obsolete. (For example, typists who are fluent users of the traditional qwerty keyboard are reluctant to learn an entirely new system, even if it promises to be faster.) At other times, users demand or generate innovations.
Users also have spurred innovation. Nineteenth century pianists (most notably Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt) pushed the technical limits of the pianoforte in search of “new volume, range, and dynamic shadings in their music,” and drove manufacturers to create the modern grand piano, with its cast-iron frame and eight-octave range. Many 20th- century athletic shoe innovations came from mountaineers and yachtsmen have created specialized types to meet the demands of their terrain; soccer players developed shoes to accommodate a faster, more fluid game that required better control and ball-handling skills.
Tenner also finds big issues in the histories of his small technologies. The worldwide spread of sandals exemplifies how globalization can absorb and then destroy local cultural forms. Zoris, which have two straps that meet between the big and second toes, originated in Japan; Japanese workers took the design to Hawaii, whence they spread to the American mainland, South America — Brazilians call them “Havianas,” or Hawaiians — and Australia. Before World War II, they were handmade from local materials. Now they are mass-produced from plastic and PVC and symbolize “the replacement of the frugal environmental ethic of early Japan with a worldwide throwaway society.” Facsimile machines and computer-aided design programs have made it possible for athletic-shoe manufacturers to quickly develop and transfer complex visual designs, then move the skilled manufacturing jobs that have produced them from Germany and America to Taiwan and South Korea.
The book’s strongest sections deal with technologies that require conscious learning and have a professional or occupational component. Users know they have to work at learning how to type, play the piano, or master a sport; walking and sitting, in contrast, are learned unconsciously, even if they are shaped by culture and technology. It makes their histories far more elusive and, in some ways, less interesting.
History affords many examples of body technologies that are innovative and afford clear improvements in performance — and are controversial precisely because they make difficult things easier. Golf clubs and oversized tennis racquets that make long drives and power serves easier, ballet slippers that provide better support for dancers’ feet and piano keyboards that make playing in different keys effortless have all been rejected because their improvements violated tradition and were seen as unacceptable shortcuts or cheating. Tenner contends that controversies like these are valuable because they force people to explain positions and assumptions that normally remain unspoken and highlight the ways we seek to balance old and new technologies and techniques. Competing lounge chair designs don’t become controversial in the same illuminating way.
Had “Our Own Devices” focused more rigorously on cases from the worlds of sports, music and work, instead of pursuing its head-to-toe coverage of body technologies, the result could have been a tighter, more closely argued book. It also might have provided a more coherent framework for considering the future of body technology, which, though part of the book’s title, is dismissed in a mere six pages. Still, the book is engaging, rather like an actor turned politician: occasionally hard to understand but consistently entertaining and optimistic, if vague, about the future. Maybe it has flaws, but you vote for it anyway.