Technology Use and the Body

Here is David Nye again, this time on the embodied character of our tool use and of our knowledge of technology:

“Tools are known through the body at least as much as they are understood through the mind. The proper use of kitchen utensils and other tools is handed down primarily through direct observation and imitation of others using them. Technologies are not just objects but also the skills needed to use them. Daily life is saturated with tacit knowledge of tools and machines. Coat hangers, water wheels, and baseball bats are solid and tangible, and we know them through physical experiences of texture, pressure, sight, smell, and sound during use more than through verbal descriptions. The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context. It can be a basis for verifiable statements about its size, shape, and uses, including its incorporation into literature and art. Based on such observations, one can construct a chronology of when it was invented, manufactured, and marketed, and of how people incorporated it into a particular time and place. But ‘reading’ the axe yields a different kind of knowledge than using it.”

This is a remarkably rich passage and not only because of its allusion to baseball. It makes an important point that tends to get lost in much of our talk about technology: technology use is an embodied practice. This point gets lost, in part, because the word technology, more often than not, brings to mind digital information technologies, and the rhetoric surrounding the use of these technologies evokes vague notions of participation in some sort of ethereal nexus of symbolic exchange.

On the one hand, we tend to forget about our more prosaic technologies — cars, refrigerators, eye glasses, drills, etc. — that are still very much a part of our lives, and, on the other, we forget that even our supposedly immaterial technologies have a very material base. We are not, as of yet, telepathically interacting the Internet after all. Having recently switched from a PC to a Mac, whenever I have occasion to use a PC again I am reminded of the embodied nature of our computer use. My fingers now want to make certain gestures or reach for certain keys on a PC that only work on the Mac. Or consider the proficient texters (or are they text messengers) who are able to key their messages without so much as glancing at their phones. Their fingers know where the keys are.

These sorts of observations resonate with the work of philosopher Hubert Dreyfus on knowledge and skill acquisition. You can read a very brief overview of Dreyfus’ position in this recent post on the body and online education. Simply put, Dreyfus, not unlike Merleau-Ponty, argues for the irreducibly embodied nature of our knowing and being in the world. Much of what we know, we know more with our bodies than with our minds. Or, perhaps better put, our mind’s engagement with reality is unavoidably embodied.

Likewise, our engagement with technology is unavoidably embodied and we would do well to focus our analysis of technology on the body as the intersection of our minds, our tools, and the world. The use a technology may ultimately have more in common with learning a skill, than with acquiring knowledge.  There is, as Nye points out, some value in “reading” our tools is if they were a text, but a deeper understanding, at least a different sort of understanding can only be had by the use of the technology under consideration.

3 thoughts on “Technology Use and the Body

  1. I agree that it’s interesting to think about our embodied experiences of the mechanisms of technology, and the skills we develop to use technology without conscious thought. I’ve heard some people talk about muscle memory, mostly in terms of video game controller use and typing on a keyboard, but it makes more sense to me to think of learned actions we don’t need to think about as an unconscious process, a series of signals between the brain and the hands (in the specific case of video game controllers and keyboards, at least). Because of that, I wonder if there really needs to be to a firm distinction between the mind and body, or if it is more a distinction between the body and its unconscious processes versus the body’s conscious processes (such as thought). Of course, that may just be an issue of semantics (you say mind, I say the brain’s conscious processes). Also interesting is the idea of the tool (or technology) as an extension of the body. Noah Wardrip-Fruin has some interesting theorization on the interface and the relationship between user, surface, and interface in his intro to _Expressive Processing_.

    1. It may be partly a matter of semantics. In any case, I’m fascinated by the degree to which we engage with the world through non-conscious or unconscious process, or with what Michael Polanyi called tacit knowledge.

      Thanks for the lead on the Wardrip-Fruin piece. I’ve come across his name often, but have yet to read anything by him. This may be a good place to start.

      1. His discussions of expressive processing focus more on how authors of algorithms and other computer processes that go into software design can express themselves through those computer processes (like how what software allows you to do and how it allows those things to be done can express the values of the author), but the introduction still may be useful for your purposes. Janet Murray’s chapters on immersion and agency, from her _Hamlet on the Holodeck_, may also be of use if you haven’t read her stuff yet.

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