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This excerpt from Edward Tenner’s book "Our Own Devices" was

prepared for the June 11, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. Copyright

Edward Tenner.

Thumbs Up: Body Tech

Edward Tenner’s latest book, "Our Own Devices, the Past and

Future of Body Technology," offers a fascinating walk through

the development of "body technology" devices and the social

adaptations of the techniques for using them. Integrating his


and interpretations of society, business, history, and culture, Tenner

delves into the individuals and companies that developed and marketed

these products. He concludes with an epilogue on the thumb and the

possible future of man and machine fused into a cyborg.

This essay, adapted from the epilogue, was first published in

the Wilson Quarterly.

by Edward Tenner

For more than 50 years, enthusiasts have proclaimed

the coming of a new age of technologically augmented humanity, a


unsettling era of bar-coded convicts and chip-implanted children.

But technology has been reshaping the body since the very dawn of

civilization. The feet of shod people, for example, are


different from those of people who have always walked barefoot.

Technologies as various as the thong sandal and the computer mouse

have affected how we use our bodies — the techniques we

employ in our everyday lives — and this coevolution of technology

and the body has not always followed the course engineers and other

designers imagined. The question now is whether mind, body, and


will fuse in some radical new way over the next generation.

The enthusiasts themselves are far from agreement on the mechanism

that might achieve such a fusion. For some, the new intimacy between

humans and machines will simply involve more portable and powerful

versions of devices we already take with us — computers, for


that might be carried as we now carry cell phones and personal digital

assistants (PDAs), to be viewed through special eyeglass displays.

Spectacles might also transmit the emotional states of their wearers,

so that a speaker, for example, could detect an audience’s interest

or boredom. There are already sneakers that can transmit or record

information on a runner’s performance, and motorcycle helmets with

intercoms and navigational aids built in.

Other enthusiasts scorn mere wearability. They’re having

sensors and transmitters surgically implanted in their bodies —

as, for example, some deaf individuals have been fitted with cochlear

implants that restore hearing. The cyborg, or human machine, is an

especially powerful and persistent notion, perhaps because it seems

a logical next step from technological symbiosis. (Politically, the

cyborg idea — which for a few enthusiasts is a movement —

spans a continuum from Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop film in 1987

to the work of cultural scholars such as Donna Haraway and Chris


Gray, who see the connection between human and machine as an


strategy against rigid economic and gender roles.)

But is the body really becoming more mechanized? Is the interaction

of technology and human behavior all that new and frightening? Despite

the legend, George Washington never wore wooden teeth, but his last

pair of dentures, made of gold plates inset with hippopotamus teeth,

human teeth, and elephant and hippo ivory, and hinged with a gold

spring, were as good as the craftsmen of his time could produce.


he suffered great discomfort, and ate and spoke with difficulty


the enforced reserve enhanced his dignity). At any rate, if the


first president was a cyborg, it’s not surprising that one in 10


had some nondental implant — from pacemakers to artificial joints

— by 2002. Nor was Washington an isolated case: Benjamin


bifocals and Thomas Jefferson’s semireclining work chair were giant

steps in human-mechanical hybridization. One might even say that John

F. Kennedy was continuing the cyborg tradition when he became one

of the first politicians to adopt the robotic signature machine, a

giant and distinctively American step in the cloning of gesture.

The many amputations wounded soldiers suffered during the U.S. Civil

War led to the creation of an innovative artificial-limb industry.

Today, responsive advanced prosthetics, wheelchairs, vision implants,

and other assistive devices exceed the 19th century’s wildest dreams.

(There has even been litigation in the United States over whether

a teenage swimmer with an artificial leg was unfairly barred from

wearing a flipper on it.)

But the first choice of medicine is still the conservation of natural

materials and abilities. Thus, the trend in eye care has been from

spectacles to contact lenses to laser surgery, and dentistry has moved

steadily from dentures to prophylaxis and the conservation of


natural teeth. Some dental researchers believe that adults may be

able to grow replacement teeth naturally. Other forms of regeneration,

including the recovery of function by paraplegics and quadriplegics,

may follow.

The body remains surprisingly and reassuringly conservative, and


has stayed steadfastly loyal to objects that connect us with our


The traditional zori design — the sandal with a v-shaped thong

separating the big toe from the others — is still used for some

of the most stylish sandals. Athletic shoes with the most technically

advanced uppers and soles still use a system of lacing at least 200

years old. For all their additional adjustments, most advanced new

office chairs still rely on the 100-year-old principle of a


lumbar support, and recliners still place the body in the same


that library chairs did in the 19th century; according to industry

sources, interest is fading in data ports built into recliners and

in other technological enhancements.

The QWERTY arrangement of the keyboard has resisted all reform, and

alternatives to the flat conventional keyboard are expensive niche

products, partly because, in the absence of discomfort, so few users

are willing to learn new typing techniques. A century after the piano

began to lose prestige and markets, it remains the master instrument,

with a familiar keyboard.

Computers now allow the production of advanced progressive eyeglasses

without the visible seam of bifocals, but wearers still hold them

on their heads with the folding temples introduced in the 18th


The latest NATO helmet still reflects the outlines of the medieval

sallet. But then, our skulls — like our foot bones, vertebrae,

fingers, eyes, and ears — have not changed much. Even the


transmissions in our cars rely on a familiar tactile principle, a

knob or handle and lever; the seemingly more efficient pushbutton

shifter was largely abandoned after the Edsel. And the 21st century’s

automobiles are still directed and controlled by wheels and pedals

— familiar from early modern sailing ships and wagons — rather

than by the alternative interfaces that appear in patents and


cars. Meanwhile, many technological professionals study body


that need few or no external devices: yoga, martial arts, and the

Alexander technique (a series of practices developed by a 19th-century

Australian actor to promote more natural posture, motion, and speech).

Even Steve Mann, the Christopher Columbus of wearable computing, has

misgivings about integrating himself with today’s "smart"

technology. Mann, who holds a PhD in computer science from the


Institute of Technology, was photographed as early as 1980 wearing

a helmet equipped with a video camera and a rabbit-ears antenna. But

in his book "Cyborg" (2001), he acknowledges being


uncomfortable with the idea of a cyborg future," where privacy

is sacrificed for pleasure and convenience to a degree he compares

to drug addiction.

Today’s advanced cyborg technology is a harbinger of neither a utopian

nor an apocalyptic future. Virtual reality helmets, often featured

in scare scenarios of the future, are still not playthings; they’re

professional tools demanding rigorous training in physical and mental

techniques if wearers are to avoid disorientation and lapses in


At the other extreme of complexity, the miniature


of cell phones and other devices are exerting a surprising influence

at the level of everyday life. They’re shifting the balance of power

of the human hand from the index finger to the thumb. C. P. E. Bach

elevated the role of the thumb in musical keyboarding 250 years ago,

but touch-typing pioneers of the 20th century rediscovered the fourth

and fifth fingers and banished the thumb to space bar duty. Now the

thumb is enjoying a renaissance. It has returned to computing with

the introduction of pen- and pencil-like devices such as the styluses

used with PDAs.

The latest computer mouse, developed by the Swedish physician and

ergonomist Johan Ullman, is gripped and moved around the desk with

a pen-shaped stick that uses the precision muscles of the thumb and

fingers and doesn’t twist the hand and tire the forearm. Even


pencils are resurgent, their unit sales having increased by more than

50 percent in the United States in the 1990s.

The biggest surprise is the thumb’s role in electronics. In Japan

today, so many new data-entry devices rely on it that young people

are called oyayubi sedai, the Thumb Generation. In Asia and

Europe, users have turned technology on its head: Instead of using

the voice recognition features of their phones, they’re sending short

text messages to friends, thumbs jumping around their cellular


in a telegraphic imitation of casual speech. By spring 2002, there

were more than 1.4 billion of these transmissions each month in the

United Kingdom alone.

One British researcher, Sadie Plant, has found that thumbs all around

the world are becoming stronger and more skillful. Some young Japanese

are now even pointing and ringing doorbells with them. As Plant told

The Wall Street Journal, "The relationship between technology

and the users of technology is mutual. We are changing each


Always attuned to social nuance, the Style section of the Washington

Post also noted the ascent of the formerly humble digit. The major

laboratories did not predestine the thumb to be the successor to the

index finger, though they did help make the change possible; its full

capacities were discovered through collaborative experimentation by

users, designers, and manufacturers.

The ascendancy of the thumb is an expression of the intimate


between head and hand described by the neurologist and hand injury

specialist Frank Wilson, who speaks of the "24-karat thumb"

in his book "The Hand" (1998): "The brain keeps giving

the hand new things to do and new ways of doing what it already knows

how to do. In turn, the hand affords the brain new ways of approaching

old tasks and the possibility of understanding and mastering new


But change is not without cost. We learn new body skills to the


of others, and humanity has been losing not only languages but body

techniques. Scores of resting positions known to anthropologists are

being replaced by a single style of sitting. Countless variations

of the infant-feeding bottle compete with the emotional and


rewards of nursing. The reclining chair, originally sold partly as

a health device, has become an emblem of sedentary living. The piano’s

advanced development in the late 19th century prepared the way for

the player piano, and ultimately for recorded music. Typewriter and

computer keyboards eliminated much of the grind of learning


along with the pleasure of a personal hand (today’s children may still

grumble, but rarely must they learn the full, demanding systems of

the 19th-century master penmen). The helmet wards off danger even

as it encourages overconfident wearers to engage in new and dangerous

activities. All these devices augment our powers, but in doing so

they also gain a power over us.

The challenge within advanced industrial societies is to cope with

a degree of standardization that threatens to choke off both new


and new techniques. We need a return to the collaboration between

user and maker that marked so many of the great technological


whether the shaping of the classic American fire helmet or the


of the touch method by expert typists and typing teachers.

Research in even the most advanced technical processes confirms the

importance of users. In the 1980s, for example, the economist Eric

von Hippel studied change in high-technology industries such as those

that manufacture scientific instruments, semiconductors, and printed

circuit boards. Von Hippel found that up to 77 percent of the


in the industries were initiated by users. He therefore recommended

that manufacturers identify and work with a vanguard of "lead

users" — as was done in the past, for example, when


musicians worked with piano manufacturers, or when the typewriter

entrepreneur James Densmore tested his ideas with the court reporter

James O. Clephane in developing the QWERTY layout, an efficient


for the four-finger typing technique that prevailed until the victory

of the touch method in the 1890s.

Today’s cognitive psychologists of work are rejecting the older model

of a single best set of procedures and learning from the experience

of workers and rank-and-file operators how equipment and systems can

be modified to promote greater safety and productivity. As one


Kim J. Vicente, has written, "Workers finish the design."

Design should be user friendly, of course, but it should

also be user challenging. The piano keyboard is rightly celebrated

as an interface that’s at once manageable for the novice and


for the expert. Information interfaces should similarly invite the

beginner even as they offer the experienced user an opportunity to

develop new techniques; they should not attempt to anticipate a user’s

every desire or need. The practice of participatory design, introduced

in the 1970s by the mathematician and computer scientist Kristen


began with Norwegian workers who wanted a say in the development of

technology in their industries and was ultimately embraced by



The keyboard that’s negotiated with a thumb is a threat to handwriting

traditions, whether Asian or Western, and that’s regrettable. But

adapting to its use is a mark of human resourcefulness and ingenuity.

The thumb, a proletarian digit ennobled in the digital age, is an

apt symbol for a new technological optimism based on the self-reliance

of users. The index finger — locating regulations and warnings

in texts, wagging and lecturing in person — signifies authority,

the rules. The thumb, by contrast, connotes the practical knowledge

men and women have worked out for themselves, the "rules of


It represents tacit knowledge, too, the skills we can’t always


as with a "green thumb." And when extended during the almost

lost art of hitchhiking, the thumb displays the right attitude toward

the future: open and collaborative, but with a firm sense of


Edward Tenner ( is a senior research

associate of the Lemelson Center for the History of Invention and

Innovation at the National Museum of American History. Tenner also

has been a visiting researcher at Princeton in the departments of

Geosciences and English.

In 1996 he wrote "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the

Revenge of Unintended Consequences," and he has contributed essays

to newspapers and magazines of the U.S. and the U.K.

He now writes mainly for US News and World Report, the Wilson


Technology Review, Raritan Quarterly Review, American Heritage of

Invention and Technology, and Designer/Builder.

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