Back in the fall of 1964, if you were a high school senior applying to college, you might have heard about Princeton not because of its academic standing but rather because of its athletic prowess. That fall Princeton was rolling to an undefeated season in football before crowds of 50,000 at Palmer Stadium. And the basketball team, led by 1964 Olympic gold medal winner Bill Bradley, was about to begin a season that would end with an appearance in the Final Four.
As a high school kid in upstate New York, I certainly was impressed by all those sports accolades. But I was no athlete. What sealed the deal for my interest in Princeton was some writing I discovered in the pages of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, given to me by a 1950 Princeton graduate who was a customer on my paper route. He had heard I was interested in Princeton and began giving me old copies of the magazine.
As a high school newspaper editor I was drawn immediately to a column called “On the Campus,” a weekly round-up of news emanating from the student body. There was nothing boring about the “On the Campus” columns printed in the fall of 1964 (a memory I confirmed a few days ago by looking through back issues of the PAW at Princeton’s Mudd Library). Subjects included dorm room decor, the town’s crackdown on beer available to under-age undergraduates, prospects (still very remote in 1964) of coeducation, and the buzz generated by the appearance of a Playboy bunny as a guest of the Triangle Club.
While the substance of the columns was eclectic, the style was elegant. The university’s legal department was quoted in explaining the policy prohibiting beer at an undergraduate event. On the second reference the legal department was referred to as Mr. Bumble, a cruel character from “Oliver Twist.” If I had recognized the allusion as a 17-year-old newspaper boy, I certainly would have been impressed by it. Literary license!
The byline above all this editorial output was one Edward H. Tenner ’65. Not Ed, or Edward, but Edward H. I knew that Bill Bradley was 6-feet-5. I imagined Tenner to be 6-1 or 6-2.
Bradley and Tenner were both gone when I arrived in September, 1965. Bradley went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and then to the New York Knicks (where he won two NBA championships). Then he entered politics — as a U.S. Senator and a presidential candidate.
Tenner earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, became a science book acquisition editor at Princeton University Press, visited Moscow as a guest of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1988, and later that year received a Guggenheim Fellowship and left publishing to become an independent writer. By then he had already published “Tech Speak or How to Talk High Tech,” which came out in 1986. He generously threw a few pieces to us at U.S. 1 (and I discovered he is in fact no taller than I).
Meanwhile, for the folks at the big league Knopf publishing house, Tenner wrote “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences” (1996), “Our Own Devices — The Past and Future of Body Technology” (2003), and, just published last month, “The Efficiency Paradox — What Big Data Can’t Do.”
The May 2 cover story in U.S. 1 told the story of Tenner and his new book. And you can get another view of the book from Tenner himself at an appearance on Thursday, May 10, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Labyrinth Books at 122 Nassau Street. I won’t miss it — and I had better not, since I have been enlisted to moderate the conversation.
It’s tempting to put Tenner into that small box of human beings who know everything about everything, or most everything about most everything. But that would be to miss Tenner’s real gift, which is to see the potential untold story in everything he considers. “I’ve always been able to see the anomalies and realize the stories behind them.”
As part of that U.S. 1 story, I snapped a few photos of Tenner in Princeton’s Firestone Library. Tenner opened a world atlas to a page showing a portion of the South Pacific. There we saw Guadalcanal, and — not too far from it — the Bismarck Sea. “You could teach a history course by just having students explain these place names and how they came to be,” Tenner said. Tenner didn’t have a quick answer for the Bismarck Sea, but he immediately gave another example: Bismarck, North Dakota. “It was an effort by the state to brown nose potential German investors in the transcontinental railroad,” he said, using some inelegant, but still effective, prose.
Did it work, I asked. “Yes,” Tenner replied, with a smile that hinted at a story there, if only we had more time.
What Tenner wrote in the preface to “Our Own Devices” could apply to any of his work: “This book is not mainly for specialists in the history, philosophy, or sociology of technology. It is an exploratory work for all those who are curious about familiar things. My goal is to provoke new ways of looking at the commonplace.”
Writing in 2003, well before the advent of the smartphone, Tenner nevertheless saw the growing importance of our thumbs in navigating the new technology.
“The thumb may be the best symbol for a new technological optimism based on user self-reliance, a proletariat digit resurgent in the digital age. The index finger signifies authority, marking regulations and warnings in texts, wagging and lecturing in person: the Rules. The thumb connotes the practical knowledge men and women have worked out for themselves: the Rules of Thumb. And it represents tacit knowledge, the skills we can’t always explain: as in the Green Thumb. Most of all, when extended in the almost lost art of hitchhiking, the thumb shows the right attitude toward the future, open and cooperative but with a firm sense of direction.”
In a 1964 “On the Campus” column, Tenner included a brief item about the increasing role of the “IBM card.” As Tenner wrote, “no other technological device of recent memory has been such a boon to Princeton’s administration.” But, he continued, “last week some ingenious undergraduate users of the Engineering Quad computer began to take their revenge. Under innocent code numbers, we are told, engraved forever in the computer’s memory are programs that yield typed sheets of Christmas cards and even a strip-tease sequence.” Credit Tenner for sounding an early alarm about what would become known as hacking, and for not becoming a Luddite in the process.
In “The Efficiency Paradox” Tenner analyzes scores of other ironic side effects to our technological devices and processes in a world in which in some ways “we have grown much more precise but less sophisticated.” The medical profession’s attempt to balance the exaggerated claims of pharmaceutical salespeople, for example, has been hampered by the “explosion” of academic papers flooding the established medical journals and leading to a proliferation of open access, online-only journals. With so many research papers flying through the ether, fraudulent ones invariably slip through — as many as 10 percent of the total, according to one source.
As Tenner writes, “we don’t have to choose between big data, algorithms, and efficiency on one side, and intuition, skill, and experience on the other. We need the right blend.” To hear more about that blend, please join me and Ed (Edward, Edward H.) Tenner on Thursday, May 10, at Labyrinth.