How the Personal Computer Broke the Human Body
May 12, 2021 9:14 PM   Subscribe

 
"but something far quieter and harder to trace, histories as intimate as they are “unhistoric”: histories of habit, use, and making do. That pain in your neck, the numbness in your fingers, has a history far more widespread and impactful than any individual TYPEWRITER or TYPE INNOVATION. No single TYPEWRITER changed the world, but TYPEWRITER pain has changed us all."
posted by clavdivs at 9:49 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


*stares in weaving*

The sheer ahistorical and seemingly classist ignorance of technology enthusiasts always bewilders me.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:24 PM on May 12 [74 favorites]


The introduction of computers into everyday routines, both at work and at home, was a historic site of vast cultural anxiety around the body.

You shoulda seen what logging did to my grandfather's body.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:29 PM on May 12 [36 favorites]


The 'Mungo man' skeleton - the oldest known confirmed human skeleton, dating to 42000 Ya - had arthritis in his right elbow caused by repetitive use of a spear-thrower...
posted by memetoclast at 10:52 PM on May 12 [20 favorites]


The sheer ahistorical and seemingly classist ignorance of technology enthusiasts always bewilders me.

posted by geek anachronism



Eponysterical!

(Also, I agree.)
posted by darkstar at 10:54 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


People who enjoyed this content also enjoyed @PessimistsArc, the archive of technophobia, moral panics, and fear of old things when they were new.
posted by migurski at 10:55 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


As they put it, “stress problems reported that were by the clerical VDT operators are not solely related to the VDT viewing, but are related to the whole VDT work system.” Tasked with boring, repetitive labor, clerical VDT workers reported “low ratings of job involvement and job autonomy,” and felt they had little control over their job requirements. For the women pressed onto VDTs for clerical work, the problem was not simply the computer, but the way the computer’s so-called productivity diminished the satisfaction they took in their labor.

So basically capitalism and patriarchy doing their thing.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:01 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Dunno where I heard it but one of my favorite quotes is:

“Every day, computers are making people easier to use!”
posted by armoir from antproof case at 11:51 PM on May 12 [37 favorites]


mandolin conspiracy: You shoulda seen what logging did to my grandfather's body.

Is it worse than blogging?
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:34 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


One fun historical fact about Unix is that the reason so many fundamental commands are short or truncated is because the keyboards of the day were awful and physically painful to use.
posted by mhoye at 1:27 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


Late in 1980, Henry Getson of Cherry Hill, New Jersey wrote in to his favorite computer hobbyist magazine, Softalk.... His letter closed with a short question, a stray thread dangled from the hem of heaping praise: “P.S. Have any remedies for tired eyes?”

Tex Avery's classic MGM cartoon TV of Tomorrow identified this problem [0:40 and 2:15] way back in 1953.
posted by fairmettle at 2:02 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


I heard a great interview a few years ago with a forensic anthropologist, who talked about how the skeleton responds over a lifetime to stresses by thickening bone where extra strength is needed, so that a person’s bony remains can provide some information about how they spent their life. A person whose working life was spent riding horses get characteristic changes to their legs. A person who spends a life heavy lifting gets changes to their shoulders. An experienced anthropologist can distinguish a weaver from a typewriter operator by the shapes of their hands.

This particular interview suggested that computer use has become ergonomic enough that it no longer produces obvious skeletal features. But in a different interview (more recently, but also years ago), a different expert claimed that a person whose main activities involve tilting the head downwards, as at a screen, will develop a “spike” of bone reinforcing the place where the skull attaches to the top of the neck. (This spike was given an anatomist-friendly Latin name which, in my recollection, was different from the name in this open-access technical paper with pictures.) A living head weighs about ten pounds, and that one little tendon attaches close to the looking-down pivot point and has to lift pretty hard to get you to look up, was the explanation. The claim was that this feature is rare in historical texts on anatomy, but quite common in contemporary people. I reached up to touch my own head: I’ve got one.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:27 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


Are Cellphones Causing Horns to Grow from Young People’s Skulls?
Experts have raised doubts about a flurry of news stories that report the act of looking down at screens is making "horns" grow on backs of skulls. [Snopes]
posted by hippybear at 5:57 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Poor Venantius’s desk had its back to the great fireplace, and it was probably one of the most desired. At that time I had passed very little of my life in a scriptorium, but I spent a great deal of it subsequently and I know what torment it is for the scribe, the rubricator, the scholar to spend the long winter hours at his desk, his fingers numb around the stylus (when even in a normal temperature, after six hours of writing, the fingers are seized by the terrible monk’s cramp and the thumb aches as if it had been trodden on). And this explains why we often find in the margins of a manuscript phrases left by the scribe as testimony to his suffering (and his impatience), such as “Thank God it will soon be dark,” or “Oh, if I had a good glass of wine,” or also “Today it is cold, the light is dim, this vellum is hairy, something is wrong.” As an ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
I like the term computerist, can we jump-start that one back to life?

In any case, I do appreciate the roundup of all that.
posted by Caxton1476 at 6:25 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


Huh. I didn’t remember the “moral panic” aspect of the story, just that this was a feature that exists (also questioned at the end of the Snopes link). In any case, if it’s a real thing, mine is probably from forty years of looking at books, rather than from ten years of looking at a phone.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:31 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Experts have raised doubts about a flurry of news stories that report the act of looking down at screens is making "horns" grow on backs of skulls. [Snopes]

The act of looking down at screens is causing young males' hair to drop out from random areas of their scalp, their facial hair to turn fluffy and unmanageable, and their legs and buttocks to shrink and elongate upwards so that trousers can no longer be found to fit them; meanwhile, it causes young females' hair to turn straight and dull, their eyebrows to fall out, their skin to turn orange and their lips to puff up as if burned. It is also damaging the sight of all young people to the extent that they are obliged to wear the largest and most unsightly spectacles available.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 6:38 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


The sheer ahistorical and seemingly classist ignorance of technology enthusiasts always bewilders me.

This. It's like those articles about football that read like the game wasn't invented until 1992.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 6:40 AM on May 13


[reaches up to touch EEOP at the base of my skull] That's... not a thing that everyone's had forever?

And, yeah, this thing doesn't take into account the prevalence of repetitive stress injury (RSI) even before personal computers became commonplace. The word "typewriter" only occurs twice in the article, and "repetitive stress injury" or RSI not at all. The typing class that I took in high school emphasized the importance of keeping your hands on the "home row" (asdf jkl;) and learning how to come back to that row after hitting keys in other locations without having to look at the keyboard or your hands, all for the sacred goal of boosting WPM, which thankfully seems to be dying as a criterion for employment; the last time it mattered in my own employment history was when I took a civil service exam for my first library job, back in the early nineties, and was of questionable relevance even then. Being able to churn out perfectly typed documents at high speed grew less important as more people started using word processing documents and laser printers that allowed them to go back and make even major changes without having to retype the entire document over.

Even before that, I think that typing was becoming less gendered because of the growing number of young people who were going to college and had to produce their own typewritten manuscripts. I remember my typing class as having a more or less even gender ratio, not surprising given that most of the students were college-bound, and even though those ads that the article mentions that were strongly gendered (women doing the typing or data entry, men looking over their shoulders) existed, I suspect that they were done mostly to draw in the oldskool business people who didn't know much about computers and still thought of them as "TV typewriters"; certainly there were a whole lot of guys who were starting to get into typing simply to be able to program faster, and also starting to get their own share of RSI. Although still less common than in the typing pool, I think; the only person at my first library who had RSI was a typing pool veteran who had to wear wrist braces with palm extensions that always reminded me of Spider-Man's web shooters.

Finally, the article takes a weirdly arch approach to ergonomics and even doing stretches in your cubicle. Maybe it's just because of an old crush that I had on Denise Austin, but "Austin never stands; surely employers did not want to see images of workers stretching their hamstrings on a walk to the water cooler" seems excessively snarky; I don't think that most employers would leave their own offices often enough to care if their workers were doing fast-flow yoga. And I appreciate the Apple Watch feature that reminds me to periodically stand up and stretch my legs, especially as I get older and actually stiffen up if I'm sitting too long.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:52 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Cardinal Fang, I care little for the hair and bodies of these young people, but I do wish this hadn't attracted them all to congregate on my lawn!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 7:17 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


The sheer ahistorical and seemingly classist ignorance of technology enthusiasts always bewilders me.
geek anachronism
“The only thing that matters is the future,” he told me after the civil trial was settled. “I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess—the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”
-Anthony Levandowski, tech wunderkind founder of Waymo and later convicted of stealing trade secrets when he jumped ship to Uber. Don't worry, though, he bought a pardon from Trump.
posted by star gentle uterus at 8:26 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


~The sheer ahistorical and seemingly classist ignorance of technology enthusiasts always bewilders me.
~This. It's like those articles about football that read like the game wasn't invented until 1992.


Or how typography apparently was an ancient, long-dead, long-forgotten skill until unearthed by nerds around the turn of this century?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:42 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


a spear-thrower

You know, if someone hasn't compiled a list of archaeological finds of these, separated them by geographical origin, and called it the AtlatlAtlas, they're just leaving money on the table.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:58 AM on May 13 [25 favorites]


I think part of the disconnect when talking about computer related injuries vs weaving, hard labor, etc. is that computer work *looks* easy. Hell, it should be easy. You're working a modern work week, you're seated, you're using devices that were designed for people rather than mechanical advantage, you lift nothing over a pound, you're in a climate controlled cubical (or in the comfort of your own home), etc.

There was a novel where a character had injured themselves diving: ascending too fast, they got decompression sickness and injured their joints. Their life was wracked with pain outside of the water; however, when they returned to diving, the weightlessness of being in the water was the only thing that led to relief.

I'm not a diver, so that could be bunkum, but I think about it often. I ruined my body doing the "softest" of labor, and I am always in pain. And like the diver returning to the water, using a computer is often the least painful way for me to do something now. (I wouldn't be able to handwrite this comment, for instance.)

If I was illuminating manuscripts, or bent over a loom, or swinging an axe, or mining for coal, or shelving retail, or working a grill... I could point at my work and go "this is why I suffer" and it would make some sort of sense! Whereas now, the pain is just absurd.

It's classist to say "my cushy office job shouldn't be as dangerous" and it's ahistorical to ignore that our bodies have always been molded to the means of production rather than vice versa. But people, no matter what they do for work, shouldn't be harmed in the process.
posted by Anonymous Function at 9:42 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


I reached up to touch my own head: I’ve got one.

Thank heavens!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:52 AM on May 13 [15 favorites]


And they thought I'd never get ahead in the world!
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:29 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]




Despite their plethora of superior spear throwers, Atlatlanta won fewer championships than you would’ve expected.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:53 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Given that repeated use is altering bodies structurally, I'm wondering what these repeated motions have on the brain? Especially using the thumb for texting.
Sort of vaguely remembering old anthro lessons about how the thumb becoming opposable caused us to evolve language? Or maybe it was upright walking? Or something else?
posted by Mesaverdian at 12:04 PM on May 13


I recall listening to a prolific science fiction author at a conference describe how he recorded his manuscripts while hiking and paid someone to transcribe them. He would then edit the chapters in his hotel while doing convention appearances. In that same talk he noted how his wife, a government employees, had to have her ulnar nerves rerouted because of problems caused by her terrible office chair. My office has a knockoff theracane and a foam roller. I have a standup desk. I switched from a laptop to an Imac in an attempt to improve my ergonomics and get rid of this ache in my neck. When my depression and anxiety were worse my body ached all the time and I used to fantasize about putting on a dry suit and working while floating in a hot tub. If my computer were a human and caused me this much pain my friends would have staged an intervention and insisted I break up. This is in an alternate universe, of course, where I have a group of loving and attentive friends who intervene during times of crisis.
posted by mecran01 at 12:42 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I've really missed my stand up desk over the last year.
posted by biffa at 1:10 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


You know, if someone hasn't compiled a list of archaeological finds of these, separated them by geographical origin, and called it the AtlatlAtlas, they're just leaving money on the table

I competed in the atlatl world championships once (a very long time ago) and formerly studied Paleolithic archaeology, and I can assure you there are possibly up to several dollars on the table for the taking.

posted by Mr. Bad Example at
Epony... yep.

posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 2:40 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Humans have only been sitting down for fifty years.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:21 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


Humans have only been sitting down for fifty years.


1971 was a heck of a year for technical innovations: the personal computer, the microprocessor, the floppy disk, the pocket calculator, email, and sitting.
posted by darkstar at 11:45 PM on May 13 [6 favorites]


I think part of the disconnect when talking about computer related injuries vs weaving, hard labor, etc. is that computer work *looks* easy.

In a lot of the world programming is culturally considered to be women’s work, as it once was in North America, for the reasons of appearance you’re describing. Periods of prolonged, careful attention, done indoors, alone or in small groups… Superficially, it looks a lot like knitting or sewing.
posted by mhoye at 4:08 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]


Or typing. I am envisioning the stereotypical 1920s-1950s secretarial pools in which dozens of women were arrayed in neat rows at their desks typing up memos, of course for the menfolk who made the decisions.

It's interesting how the "administrative secretary" transitioned from being "men's work" to "women's work" in the early 1900s when so many men went off to fight WWI. Kind of like how factory work opened up to women in WWII.
posted by darkstar at 9:48 AM on May 14


I think part of the disconnect when talking about computer related injuries vs weaving, hard labor, etc. is that computer work *looks* easy. Hell, it should be easy. You're working a modern work week, you're seated, you're using devices that were designed for people rather than mechanical advantage, you lift nothing over a pound, you're in a climate controlled cubical (or in the comfort of your own home), etc.

The other thing I was thinking about is the air quality in office spaces. Even poorly-ventilated ones now (pandemic notwithstanding) can't hold a candle to the occupational hazard that was the tobacco smoke-filled office of yore.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:26 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


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