JITE v41n4 - Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity

Volume 41, Number 4
Winter 2004

Under Review

Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity

By Edward Tenner
Format: Softcover, ISBN: 0375707077
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Publishers

Reviewed by
Andrew E. Schultz
Central Michigan University

In Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, Edward Tenner (2004) looks at how we sit, stand, walk, and communicate, and how these elementary human behaviors have changed as a result of the things we make. But Tenner also examines the converse: how the way we sit, stand, walk, and communicate affects technology. Tenner includes the economic perspective, examining the question, "Why were men and women of one time and place willing to pay for proliferating variety, while not in another time and place?" (p. x). As a result, this book is really an examination of the "ceaseless interplay of technology, economics and values" (p. ix).

As such, it is a vital, interesting read for technology educators. Contemporary technology education teachers and industrial technology education teachers normally address the physical, intellectual, and affective dimensions of the tangible products humans make in the courses they teach. Increasingly over the past half century, it was held that the things people make had become less tangible, less physical, and more remote. Over the past 20 years, particularly, technology teachers embraced this idea and focused on the more intangible, on the less physically knowable "stuff" that humans make. As a result, the rapid, intuitive, hands-on grasp of technological matters that had been the hallmark of industrial education has become difficult to maintain.

However, the effects of this post-industrial trend to studying highly sophisticated products built of miniaturized and invisible technology are probably no more profound than their large-scale predecessors, and, as usual, will be recognizable only in hindsight. Advances in computing, communications, nanotechnologies, genetic manipulation, medical technologies, and subatomic physics promise change at an exponentially faster rate: change that seems increasingly remote from the average person's understanding. Will this mean that technology education loses its claim as a vital part of general education and instead becomes the pre-professional education of only superior students, vis-a-vis, pre-engineering education? While Tenner does not specifically address this increasing remoteness of the artifacts of the field and age, he does deconstruct the technological artifacts of the 20th century, so ubiquitous as to be equally invisible as the latest arcane cyber stuff. In other words, his analysis of 20th century technological artifacts is probably significant to understanding the impact of 21st century technology.

Given this perspective, Tenner examines the body as an information system that shapes technology. Using this methodology as a set of lens, he looks at everyday objects through a pair of terms, technology and technique. Tenner differentiates between structure and skill, saying:

Historians of technology customarily focus on the devices themselves, if only because habits are poorly documented. Designers, often rightly, aim to make some skills obsolete. What virtue was there in trimming a wick, cranking an automobile, tuning a crystal radio set, or even (for casual amateurs) focusing a camera manually? (p. xi)

What virtue, indeed. Tenner is writing ironically, of course. He certainly realizes that there is no inherent virtue of technology, only utility; and that is determined by the particular age in which the writer lives and the culture of which he or she is a part.

Tenner thus underlines technique as a neglected but important element of the field, writing: "In fact, technique is much more important in our lives than we realize" (p. xi). He thus begins to deconstruct the meaning and method of seven common and ubiquitous items in today's life--baby bottles and other methods of feeding babies, the thong sandal, the running shoe, chairs, the all-too-familiar keyboard with its QWERTY layout, spectacles or glasses, and, finally, the helmet--to illustrate the interrelatedness of technique and technology.

This interplay of technology and technique that Tenner talks about begins literally at our feet as he begins this deconstruction with a look at shoelaces. It turns out that shoelaces offer an effective starting point for the discussion of just what it is that Tenner finds interesting about technology. He writes, "Shoelace(s) can encapsulate the themes of this book. For all the embrace of advanced materials in athletic shoes, shoe fastening has changed little for two centuries or longer" (p. xi). Where else might one become knowledgeable about the metal or plastic thingies on the end of a lace, aglets or tags? Where else can one find out about the sociological impact of variance in tying technology?

Where might his entertaining discussion of shoelaces lead? Obviously, shoelaces would lead into a heart-to-heart about walking and footwear. Walking, as it turns out, varies culture by culture; and Tenner, with ethnographic descriptions of the gaits of nations, correlates these national norms of ambulation with the footwear that subsequently co-develops. It is an interesting tale that later leads into a chapter on sports shoes.

First, however, the author talks about babies. Tenner begins the in-depth part of the book with details about the customs of feeding babies and how they led to bottles. As it turns out, the most natural thing in the world for mammals, breast feeding, is not an inherited capacity, but rather a learned behavior; and the nuclear family (two parents and their offspring) is not as conducive to the education of new mothers as was the extended family of yore. The historic role of grandmothers as keepers of the child-rearing lore has been somewhat dissipated, given the widely dispersed nature of 20th and 21st century families.

Cultural beliefs have also been a change element for or against breastfeeding; and the impetus to technological feeding alternatives has thus ebbed and flowed with the changing role and image of women in culture. Class and religious beliefs have shaped childrearing ideals, and babies have had to adapt to these changes. Technique for the baby changes from bottle to breast; and the change from breast milk to formula, too, has profound implications for the infant and mother. Mouth shape, the 61 muscles used, and the related neural network of associations are altered from breast to bottle. Dentists report more orthodontic work is required for bottle-fed, versus breast-fed, children. Additionally, the length of the breast-feeding period and its frequency are also modified; and the subsequent appreciation and knowledge of the world is thereby modified from the infant's breast-centric to bottle-centric perceptions. Thus, even the earliest technological intrusion into the development of humans required adaptation or techniques for using that technology, and had profound developmental implications.

From the mouths of babes to the feet of pilgrims, the next chapter deals with the evolution of footwear and its concomitant effects on human physiology, culture, and thought. The author maintains that a mere seven types encompasses the essence of footwear: moccasin, sandal, boot, clog, pump, mule, and oxford.

Tenner reports on shoes from many cultures and throughout history, but particularly he reports on Japanese footwear because there is a lengthy unbroken record of the changes that occurred in that footwear. He reports on the healthfulness of barefoot ambulation and on some of the health consequences of walking barefoot. He describes technological innovations in shoes which helped remove these health consequences, and the physiological and cultural consequences of wearing shoes, focusing particularly on variations in sandals in this chapter. Again, technique comes into play on this adaptation; and the effects of these techniques on the user are detailed and enumerated.

From the generalist to the specialist, the transition to the next chapter focuses on sports shoes. Somewhat ironically, considering the long life of sandals, et al., sports shoes are a quite recent innovation. Most sports had been performed barefoot, although native distance runners in Mexico, the American southwest, and ancient Greece adopted shoes for the most prosaic running reason: it was their livelihood. Not until the 18th century did sports shoes begin to make an appearance, with perhaps as much foot damage as aid. Class and utility were the determinant of shod or unshod running, with aristocratic runners competing for sport remaining unshod while footmen running alongside carriages transporting the rich donned protective footgear.

Although the development of the rubber industry is associated with tires for cars, the actual impetus was sports shoes. The subsequent burst of 20th century athletic shoe production, AKA sneakers, had less to do with sport, per se, than with identification with sporting figures and vast marketing campaigns. The history of athletic shoe production, in all of its worldwide extremes, is as good a history of post-1960 capitalism as any.

What can be more elementary than a chair? In his allegory of the Caves, Plato described the essence of a chair; consequently, one would assume that such a thing was ubiquitous throughout history. Tenner teaches that this is not so, however, as he reports that the first historic artifacts of chairs come from the Egyptian Old Kingdom of about 5000 years ago. Unlike the utilitarian nature of early sporting shoes, whereby the aristocracy eschewed the shoe, chairs were reserved for royalty until the 8th century in China, when mats in households began to be replaced with folding stools, thereby adding impetus to other furniture, such as tables. Japan, however, remained faithful to mats; and much of the Mideastern, Asian, and Indian culture still sit on the floor, both at home and at work.

Deconstruction of the manner in which keyboards, spectacles, and helmets evolved concludes the remainder of Tenner's examination of common technology of 20th century life. Each adds significantly to understanding how technique and technology reinforce and modify each other, co-evolving unpredictably and endlessly.

Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity is thus an exploration of invention and user genius. In this exploration, Tenner finds that objects complement body technique; and he argues that from warfare through music, some of the most important innovations have been less in the invention of things than in the invention of new usage.

Confirming the finding of the Gallup poll conducted by the International Technology Education Association, Tenner reports that most people think of technology as computers and attribute our economic well-being as resulting from these high-tech advances. Tenner's research counters this misconception; and he notes, for example, that " . . . improved thread and stain removers" (p. ix) in the 1990s were more economically significant than personal computers.


In the past 20 years, technology education has become more theoretical and less hands-on; in Tenner's words, technique has been de-emphasized. This has been done in response to the odd climate of the times.

  1. Leaders have emphasized that higher-order thinking skills are more important than technique.
  2. The economic forces of globalization have devalued hands-on skills in the United States such that, career wise, the world of technique in manufacturing has been exported to less developed countries to take advantage of cheap labor.
  3. The economic value of education has dominated the discussion of what education should do. Thus, ironically, schools are largely vocational, although they would never describe themselves as such.
  4. Technology educators have been seduced by the new, by the bells and whistles of technological innovation, and have missed much of the profound shift of technique associated with it.

The thinking creatures that students become are profoundly and intimately affected by the technology and techniques developed. De-emphasizing the exploration and understanding of technique is an omission that must be railed against. Further, the social, moral, and economic certainties the nation projects, although crystal clear to the rich industrialized societies, are senseless to those without this way of thinking. What are the implications of this to technology education teachers? Pope (1711) once wrote that a little learning is a dangerous thing. It is possible that technology education teachers are so blinded by the relatively superficial brilliance of technology that they fail to perceive the consequences fully. Technological innovations of the past 20 years have been pervasive, while understanding of these changes has not yet been profound.


Pope, A. (1711). An essay on criticism.

Schultz is Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial and Engineering Technology at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Schultz can be reached at schul1@cmich.edu.
Tracy Gilmore