Monkeys don't sit on chairs
The objects we use - from baby bottles to lounge chairs - shape our minds and bodies
Plenty of us have thought about how people create new technol- ogies. In his latest book, "Our Own Devices," scholar and polymath Edward Tenner considers how technology creates new people.
This ambitious, stimulating work focuses on the reciprocal relationship between human beings and the machines that affect everyday life. Tenner explores his theories by looking at how we feed our babies, walk, relax, make art, even butt heads. Though his examples are far-flung, his thesis - that man and machine coax each other toward new expressions and social practices - is taut.
"This book is about the changes we have made in ourselves: how everyday things affect how we use our bodies - how we sit, stand, walk, and communicate," Tenner writes. "And it is about their symbolic side: how they affect our images of each other."
He has no ax to grind, though he begins with the contentious issue of bottle-feeding infants, which became viable in the 19th century. He takes no position on the issue, only saying, "The 20th century gave a scientific and moral victory to breast-feeding but a de facto social and economic victory to bottle-feeding after the first few months of life." In any case, infants' behavior and mouths adjusted.
He proceeds to zoris, the rubber sandals ubiquitous in warmer climates. Singer Harry Belafonte may have popularized zoris by walking the streets of Kyoto during a 1950s tour. Tenner notes that these sandals harm the environment - "Discarded plastic footwear is a major part of the world's flotsam" - but he also observes that they represent social aspiration.
Such insights, which build on the anthropological work of Marcel Mauss and Jacques Ellul, also inform his history of the musical keyboard as it evolved from ancient organ to modern synthesizer. Neither it nor its relative, the QWERTY textual keyboard, has changed much in the past 100 years. What has, he says, is the reach. The piano has gone the way of the parlor it once dominated, making way for the computer.
That shift has changed the meaning of creativity, too, Tenner suggests, comparing the "spirit of hacking" in the "prepared" piano works of 20th-century composers John Cage and George Crumb to the hacking of computers. This spirit, he writes, "has been easier to extend to $2,500 personal computers than to $25,000 Steinway grands."
A former executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press and a visiting fellow in English and geosciences there, he's driven to make sense of a complicated world. Because it is about process, about how mankind gropes toward techniques and technologies it may not know it craves or needs, Tenner's book inevitably raises political questions. And, while it is agenda-free, he nevertheless occasionally gives attitude room to breathe.
For instance, during his overview of lounge seating, he writes, "There is less work for independent inventors today; the big manufacturers prefer to hire in-house staffs. There are also few name designers. Raymond Loewy developed a Barcalounger in the 1960s, but today's best-known signature models are those that La-Z-Boy offers, inspired by the patriotic, nostalgic paintings of Thomas Kinkade."
"The most challenging question," Tenner concludes, "is whether mind, body and machine will fuse in some radical new way over the next generation."
Tomorrow's designers must create devices that are user-friendly and user-challenging, like the piano keyboard, "rightly celebrated as an interface manageable for the novice and inexhaustible for the expert." The lesson Tenner transmits so cogently, unpredictably, and delightfully is that in the best designs ease and complexity cohabit, furthering and reflecting evolution itself.
• Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.