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BOOK REVIEW: "Device" Shows Everyday Things In New Light

Stuart Mitchner

Shortly after the great power-grid breakdown of 2003, I was in Montreal channel-surfing on a motel TV when a familiar Princeton face appeared on the screen. The last time I'd seen Edward Tenner he was buying an armload of books gleaned from the shelves of the ongoing book sale of Friends of the Princeton Library. Now he was on the air with CNBC's Lou Dobbs, being consulted about possible causes of the power failure in the context suggested by his book, Why Things Bite Back (1997).

In his latest work, Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (2003), the "things" under consideration don't bite back; in fact, they conform to our needs and desires, and influence how we do what we do. It explores how technology changes us as much as we change it.

It's a scholarly, if eclectic, look at the evolution of "things" such as footwear, armchairs, keyboards, and eyeglasses. Therefore, it's not unlikely that at least one of the books in the armload Mr. Tenner found on the library's sale shelves has provided or will provide some material for one of his projects. Indeed, what better resource for an expert in the study of unintended consequences than a random assortment of books of varying age, subject, and condition? And the man National Public Radio dubbed "philosopher of everyday technology" pointed out recently the amusingly appropriate chance juxtaposition of titles.

But readers of Mr. Tenner's book will find that he is not so much a philosopher, as a Balzacian historian. By "Balzacian" I mean to suggest the obsessive intensity of that novelist's exploration of every aspect of every subject he pursues. Mr. Tenner writes with clarity, weaving his intricate, elaborate web of insights and discoveries finely enough to achieve the goal stated in the preface – that of finding new ways of looking at the commonplace.

Mr. Tenner is currently senior research associate at the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His enterprise is the sort that invites readers to plunge in wherever they choose. True to its title, the book leaves readers to their own devices. So if the technology of the midsole in running shoes gets boring or the historical development of office furniture seems dull, jumping ahead to another chapter is allowable.

Readers should be warned, however, that by taking a hit-and-miss approach, they risk missing the sentences Mr. Tenner uses to begin the plant fibers for sandals for desert peoples and that with which he ends the biodegradation of leather in the remains of the Titanic.

In a paragraph on the same page, he cites Herman Melville on the toes of the Marquesas Islanders, an expert on barefoot peoples, and a team of Japanese medical researchers. He concludes with a young American teacher's discussion of her adjustment to thong sandals in Hawaii in the 1960s.

According to Mr. Tenner's schemata, the technology is embodied by the shoe, the chair, the keyboard, the spectacles. The effect is to make us focus more closely on things we otherwise might take for granted: our shoes, the chair we're sitting in and the way we're sitting, our relationship to the keyboard we're typing on, the lenses of our glasses, if we're wearing any, and even our primal nourishment, since the first technology in Our Own Devices is bottle-feeding and the first illustration in the book is the pre-20th century nursing bottles that were "hygienic nightmares."

At the same time, the notion of "unintended consequences" brings to the forefront relatively recent events like the consequences of an attempt to simplify the 2000 election ballot in West Palm Beach; or, as Mr. Tenner points out, what happened to Nike when its basketball-oriented "swoosh" turned up on capsules of Ecstasy.

This precedes another typical Tenner turn wherein he observes that the members of the Heaven's Gate cult outfitted themselves in new black Nike tennis shoes for their mass suicide: "Whether it was a sardonic comment on the consumer society they were leaving or an invocation of the manufacturer's advertising slogan of the time, 'Just do it,' the gesture showed the exposure of megabrands to uses beyond the powers of trademark lawyers," he stated in the book.

The parts of the book I found less interesting were generally those where the emphasis was more technical than historical, with sources like "Design," "Interior Design," "Applied Ergonomics," and "Managing Office Technoklogy." But there was no lack of interest among those listening to Mr. Tenner at a recent talk about inventions and inventors at the annual meeting of the Friends of Princeton Library.

For this Princeton-area resident, fresh material is omnipresent, and available even on the sale shelves at the Princeton library.

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