I love thinking about technology, and until my recent breakup with coffee had many tooth staining mornings doing just that. I just finished reading Edward Tenner’s “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity” and found it a fun (albeit sometimes repetitive) friendly read. Tenner is right on the money as far as I’m concerned in revealing technology as an expression of humanity’s ‘grip’ unto the world. The web of tools at humanity’s ever creative disposal is more the force of gravity that holds societies and human self-understanding together or the fingernails letting us ‘hold onto’ meaning and existence.

Tenner brings it all home by exploring the sometimes easy to forget technologies that we take for granted because they’re liable to not have a product placement shot in your favorite Bourne movie. With the intention of initating a reflection upon how each individual, society, and the course of human history is intimately bound to technology Tenner has thoroughly researched shoes, chairs, glasses, helmets, and baby bottles.

Tenner’s work is very useful in the distinction he makes between technology, “modifications to the environment”, and technique, “how technology is used in performance”. From this he follows Marcel Mauss in explicating the concept of ‘body techniques’ which are the direct bodily impacts of interfacing with the technology permeated environment. Even this last sentence gives strength to the false premise that the environment is other than human and their tools. 

You’ll hear some people complain that “Computers are creating a situation where they are a crutch. No one is thinking anymore.” And I would answer, in a way that I feel Tenner would support, “To say that something is a crutch is to assume there is a correct, natural, or normal way for humanity to be expressed. That is simply not so. Humanity as comtemporary theories go was literally born out of the control of fire technologies. There is only change and transformation as organic and nonorganic elements converge.” If one is wont to charge technology of being a crutch, Tenner would lead them to confront the everyday technologies of shoes and chairs. Both are technologies that our bodies were not and are not designed for. Though we hear about advanced “ergonomic” shoes and chairs they will continue to cause inordinate strain and body adaptation. They are as Tenner says, machines whose primary if unintended effect is to produce more dependence on them. They are, like most perennial technologies like Cracker Jack’s: “The More You Eat The More You Want”. Shoes and chairs create modifications to the actual structure and function of one’s body. You need not get a penis splice to enter into ‘body modification’ (bod mod) clubs.

So what about my title? How is a body a ‘learned artifact’? Well, the body is an interpreted and socially constructed material. It is used to produce, entertain, reproduce, consume, eliminate. And yet very little we ‘do’ with our bodies is involuntary or unlearned. The ways our bodies interact with surroundings particularly the technologies are our body techniques. These techniques are as defined to the time, context, and culture as any Hopi blanket.

What was especially interesting to me was the way that our body techniques can continue to flourish while operating under less than maximum performance results. I came up with three categories that Tenner does not use but came to me while reading “Our Own Devices”: 1) ‘successful bad ideas, 2) delayed effective techniques, 3) non-ideal conventions.

First, successful bad ideas are those things which for whatever reason seemed to have their reign even though bodies were reporting (even unto death) their ineffectiveness. In this category we could include the use of oils and various powders for household minor burns even though we know that the body responds best to simply cool water. The American Red Cross will now advocate running a minor burn under tap water, but even when I was young my mother who is a nurse had me put corn starch on a burn received while being stupidly patriotic (redundancy?) with a firecracker. Vaseline, as Tenner points out, was classicly sold as a burn relief in its incipient years. Speaking of the Red Cross, one can have a grand time looking at some of their archival pictures of lifeguard training for proto-CPR. Pushing on the back, rolling over a barrel, pumping legs, etc. all were used at one time. Even within the last few decades there have been changes to the Red Cross guidelines and famously they differ from American Heart Association. Of course we know that new EMT and hospital information and statistics come in each year and new techniques can be tweaked and explored, but what do we make of the historical procedures which seem to encourage a speedy death? I see some people doing a common iteration of this idea when they blow into the eye of someone who has dust or an eyelash in their eye. I saw a mother recently hold her young crying son’s eye open and blow heartily into it. “There. Now rub it.” She said. What?! Hot air filled with more dust and possibly Doritos in an eye and then rubbing it? How did this ever catch on?

Secondly, Tenner does a great job pointing out events in sports which revolutionized them. The Fosbury Flop, and the Front Crawl introduced to Europeans by Flying Gull and Tobacco are just two examples of Delayed Effective Techniques. These are body techniques which seemed to lag behind (at least for some) what was certainly possible but perhaps never imagined. The Jump Shot and Slam Dunk are other examples from sport. My father told me how when he was in High School Terry Kunze wowed the whole conference and could bring a gymnasium to its feet just by dribbling behind his back.

Lastly there are Non-Ideal Conventions of body techniques including birthing (laying on back with feet restrained in stirrups or more humanely of late within the hands of loved ones) or bottle feeding rather than breast feeding. There is also the convention of how many brush their teeth. No matter how many times our dentist tells us: “Brush softly and in small circles” we are determined to brush our teeth like we’re trying to buff out a scratch on our Honda. And I am sure there are many who could add to this list popular sexual ‘moves’ whose existence is mysterious if not troubling. How these conventions arise and how they are encouraged is yet to be explained to me.

I will conclude with just a thought of applying our body operations failures and limitations to how we think of gender and sex. Looking back at how bodies have and are now continued works in progress without ‘natural’ perameters of ability or a ‘given’ scope of performance how can we expect the social construct of gender and sex binaries to change in the near future? Maybe we will be able to identify across mainstream contemporary American communities that gender/sex binaries have been a ‘Successful’ Bad Idea, and a Non-Ideal Convention. Perhaps also we will look to current Trans and GenderFuck individuals and communities as bringing a long-awaited paradigm shifting prophetic voice to allow bodies to learn a more full and more honest mode of being in the world.

Tenner, Edward “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity” (New York: Vintage Books. 2004)