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Our Technologies, Ourselves

Carl Elliott

Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology
Edward Tenner
Alfred A. Knopf, $26 (cloth)

8 When I was a teenager in South Carolina in the 1970s, I once found an old 8mm movie camera at a flea market. Even then the camera seemed ancient. It was crafted out of steel, and to make it run you had to wind it up with a key on the side. The lens had to be adjusted by hand, and so did the light settings, which required a complicated set of calculations based on an unreliable meter attached to the top. The film itself had to be ordered from special shops in Philadelphia. Developing the film took at least several weeks, often months. Each roll of film ran for a maximum of three minutes, unless several rolls were spliced together, and all the splicing and editing had to be done by hand. We had to show the films in a tiny, darkened room with no windows, often a closet or bathroom, using an equally ancient projector which usually burned or ate the film unless it was operated with expert technique. Learning how to deal with that camera and projector was a kind of self-imposed torture, yet making those films is among the best memories of my childhood.

I used that 8mm camera well into the 1990s, and for reasons that I can’t quite explain I have never once felt tempted to use a home video camera. At some point in the late 1980s I returned to the United States from living abroad to discover that seemingly every American I knew was carrying a video camera, 24 hours a day. Weddings, anniversaries, births, vacations, birthday parties, drooling children, precocious pets: all were being committed to videotape with such diligence that videotaping a life seemed to have become a substitute for living it. Technologies are supposed to be good because they make things easier, but home video cameras seemed to me to make things too easy. Part of the appeal of the old 8mm camera was that it was not so easy to use. Its draw was almost mystical: the mechanical whir of the camera as you filmed, the delicate craft of splicing together the tiny images, the anticipation of sitting quietly in the dark, watching flickering pictures on the wall.

It is the complex relationship between technology and technique that interests Edward Tenner in his accessible, elegant new book, Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology. How does technology change technique? How do those changes in technique change the way we live? Tenner is interested in body technologies that enhance human capacities, but his idea of enhancement technologies veers away from the conventional use of the term. Unlike Bill McKibben, Francis Fukuyama and Jürgen Habermas, Tenner is not interested in genetic enhancement. Nor is he interested in psychopharmacology, posthumanism, or cyborg manifestos. The phrase “body technology” in the title of his book refers to the spectacularly successful everyday devices that are so commonplace as to be almost invisible: shoes, chairs, helmets, keyboards, spectacles, and baby bottles. Tenner is intrigued by the complex feedback loop between human needs, the tools we devise to deal with those needs, and the way those tools come to modify the lives of the humans who use them. He wants to understand the changes in childrearing that resulted from the development of the baby bottle, or the changes in middle-class life in the 19th century as the piano keyboard became standardized and affordable. Tenner covers a remarkably broad canvas. His preface and introduction alone cover shoelaces, walking styles, marching techniques, automobile air bags, police service revolvers, the Australian crawl, curve balls, Pennyfarthing bicycles, rowing technologies, fencing foils, ice skates, muskets, and the Heimlich maneuver.

As Tenner explains, the easier technology is not straightforwardly the better one. For example, the governing bodies of most professional sports have standards for the equipment they will allow players to use, and they diligently monitor new technologies, such as baseball bats and golf clubs, to make sure they are not so effective that they alter the nature of the game. For most of the 20th century professional bowling associations banned the “dodo ball,” a conventional hard rubber bowling ball that had been doctored with metallic salts to make it hook more sharply. But in the 1980s and ’90s engineers developed new urethane bowling balls that could hook as sharply as the old dodo balls without violating the ban, which had been written before urethane was developed. As a result, bowling scores shot up. Perfect 300 games, once rare even for accomplished pros, increased a hundredfold. The game itself changed too. The new balls made strikes much easier, so bowlers began to pay less attention to the complex skill of getting spares.

Yet not all stories of new technologies end in the same way. For example, the conventional Western musical keyboard used on pianos and organs has always had its problems. The sheer size of the keyboard makes it hard for children to learn. Some compositions which require many of the black keys are difficult even for experts to perform. Transposition of a musical composition into a different key can be extremely difficult. The conventional keyboard requires a performer’s fingers to stretch so much that in the 19th century, according to Tenner, surgeons were employed to sever the tendons between a player’s fourth and fifth fingers in order to increase their span. Why not redesign the keyboard to make it easier to play?

In the late 19th century a Hungarian nobleman named Paul von Janko did just that. He made the black and white keys on the keyboard the same size, both narrower and shallower than conventional keys, and arranged them in two staggered rows of whole tones. Above and below the home rows were banks of identical keys, making six rows of keys in all. The Janko keyboard looked complicated, but it was actually much easier to play. An octave was only six keys wide.

At first the keyboard looked like a success. A Berlin conservatory began teaching courses on the Janko piano. Companies in the United States and Europe began to manufacture it. Prominent European pianists started to perform on it. Trade journals published enthusiastic articles. A Janko association was formed in Berlin. Even the great Franz Liszt became interested. But soon the popularity of the Janko piano began to wane. Part of the problem was technical: most performers could not afford to take their pianos with them on tour, and many concert halls did not have access to a Janko piano. But the real problem ran deeper. The music that the pianists were performing was supposed to be difficult, often extremely difficult, and the Janko keyboard made it easy. Performances on the Janko keyboard were often too flashy. The tension inherent in listening to a performer play a complex piece of music disappeared. By the 1920s the Janko keyboard had faded away, and could be seen only in museums.

As Tenner explained in his earlier book, Why Things Bite Back, technology has a way of producing unexpected consequences. Bike helmets were supposed to reduce head injuries, but during the period in which they became widely adopted the number of head injuries per cyclist increased by a margin of 51 percent. Tenner points out that the spread of eyeglasses—both a cause and consequence of the culture of reading and writing—has been accompanied by high rates of nearsightedness. Very rare in hunter-gatherer peoples, nearsightedness is so common in developed countries that it is now the norm: more than 98 percent of medical students in Singapore are nearsighted. One study in the 1960s found that Alaskan Eskimos who lived traditionally had a rate of nearsightedness of less than two percent, while their children and grandchildren who got Western educations had rates above 50 percent.

Tenner is a brilliant miniaturist. He has an eye for the odd detail and the little-known fact. At times, though, I longed for him to pull back just a little, to look from the page and let his mind ramble. I wanted to hear less technical detail and more speculation about the bigger picture. Often, just as Tenner was getting me interested in a particular detail—an unusual fact about safety catches on 9mm pistols, or the load-carrying techniques of the Kikuyu women of Africa—the subject would change and off we would go to somewhere new. But if you are prepared to stick with him, Tenner will take you to some fascinating places.

I still wonder about the existential mystery of technology. How is it that some technologies feel liberating, like a good pair of binoculars or a 1967 Volkswagen Microbus, while others feel so oppressive? What is it about a fully equipped modern kitchen that makes you want to stick your head in the oven? As Tenner understands better than most, we seem to understand a lot about the way technologies work, but very little about the way they work on us. <

Carl Elliott is Visiting Associate Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and author of Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review

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