Review

Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology

by Edward Tenner



The Blackout of 2003 has already left us awash in observations of
our dependence on technology. Some 50 million people (including
this writer) found themselves suddenly forced to adjust, however
temporary, to life without the conveniences provided by
electricity. There is no question that, had the outage lasted
longer than a few hours, as was the case in most areas, the effects
would have been even more profound, if not catastrophic. But
electronic technology is the new kid in town, a relatively recent
arrival on the human scene, and as such gets far more attention
than the more mundane technologies that have become so integrated
into the human condition as to be nearly invisible. These
"everyday" technologies are the subject of Edward Tenner's
fascinating new book, OUR OWN DEVICES.

Tenner's exhaustively researched histories of the evolution of the
baby bottle and baby formulas, eyeglasses, footwear, chairs,
helmets and keyboards (of the musical and typewriter varieties)
describe technologies that have affected the human body as much as,
if not more than, they affected civilization. Tenner's focus on
these body technologies is a welcome and appealing shift from the
persistent focus on today's cutting-edge electronic
technology.

There is no question that advances in computer technology over the
last dozen years in particular have had a profound effect on
society, culture, and business. But with the notable exception of
certain medical advances, technology at that level is only just
beginning to affect the human body at the same level as the devices
Tenner describes. Within the context of human evolution, the
technologies illustrated in OUR OWN DEVICES, though taken for
granted for decades (or longer), are no less revolutionary than the
body enhancements described in William Gibson's NEUROMANCER and
other cyberpunk novels.

While eyeglasses may not seem as sexy or as exciting as the
implants and body enhancements one finds in cyberpunk, they make it
possible for me, a profoundly nearsighted, trifocal-wearing reader,
to function in the world, let alone read anything I want, whether
it's cyberpunk speculation of the future or a detailed history of
the eyeglasses that today similarly empower millions. As a
card-carrying techno-geek, I love new gadgets, but as body
enhancements go, I can't think of anything more necessary and
therefore more interesting than my glasses. Edward Tenner's highly
informative book is important because he puts that issue into very
sharp focus.

While life without electricity is as attractive a proposition as a
do-it-yourself root canal, life without the familiar technologies
described in OUR OWN DEVICES would truly reduce mankind to a state
uncomfortably close to that of our knuckle-dragging ancestors.
Chance --- and the apparent inadequacies of our electrical
infrastructure --- has made Tenner's book a timely and significant
one. Read it now, while the lights are still on.

Reviewed by Bob Rhubart on January 22, 2011

Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology
by Edward Tenner

  • Publication Date: June 3, 2003
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Science, Technology
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0375407227
  • ISBN-13: 9780375407222