• June 17, 2021

Exclusive: Is Computer History Also a History of Physical Pains?

 Exclusive: Is Computer History Also a History of Physical Pains?

“Decades before “Zoom fatigue” broke our spirits, the so-called computer revolution brought with it a world of pain previously unknown to humankind,” argues Laine Nooney (in a condensed version of a chapter in the 2022 book Abstractions and Embodiments: New Histories of Computing and Society.)

Slashdot reader em1ly shares its observation that “There was really no precedent in our history of media interaction for what the combination of sitting and looking at a computer monitor did to the human body…”

Forty years later, what started with simple complaints about tired eyes has become commonplace experience for anyone whose work or school life revolves around a screen. The aches and pains of computer use now play an outsized role in our physical (and increasingly, our mental) health, as the demands of remote work force us into constant accommodation. We stretch our wrists and adjust our screens, pour money into monitor arms and ergonomic chairs, even outfit our offices with motorized desks that can follow us from sitting to standing to sitting again. Entire industries have built their profits on our slowly curving backs, while physical therapists and chiropractors do their best to stem a tide of bodily dysfunction that none of us opted into. These are, at best, partial measures, and those who can’t afford extensive medical interventions or pricey furniture remain cramped over coffee tables or fashioning makeshift laptop raisers. Our bodies, quite literally, were never meant to work this way…

As both desktop computers and networked terminals proliferated in offices, schools, and homes over the 1980s, chronic pain became their unanticipated remainder: wrist pain, vision problems, and back soreness grew exponentially… To consider the history of computing through the lens of computer pain is to center bodies, users, and actions over and above hardware, software, and inventors. This perspective demands computer history to engage with a world beyond the charismatic object of computers themselves, with material culture, with design history, with workplace ethnography, with leisure studies… This is not the history of killer apps, wild hacks, and the coding wizards who stayed up late, 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 computer or computing innovator. No single computer changed the world, but computer pain has changed us all…

[T]he next time you experience “tired eyes,” wrists tingling, neck cramps, or even the twinge of text neck, let it serve as a denaturalizing reminder that the function of technology has never been to make our lives easier, but only to complicate us in new ways. Computer-related pain, and the astounding efforts humans went to (and continue to, go to), to alleviate it, manage it, and negotiate it, provide one thread through the question of how the computer became personal. The introduction of computers into everyday routines, both at work and at home, was a historic site of vast cultural anxiety around the body.

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