The New Ergonomics

In this age of ubiquitous computing, what exactly are we doing to our bodies?

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The first step might be admitting that having on-the-go access to computing is not entirely a benign development. “Smartphones and tablets are not being used in place of traditional technology; people still have laptops, they have desktops,” says Jonathan Puleio, the director of consulting for ergonomics at the furniture manufacturer Humanscale. In recent times, there has been a cumulative effect of bad postures with both old and new technologies, leading to a surge in two specific ailments. The first is connected with the overuse of texting and touch-based devices: “a tendon-related disorder with the thumb, called de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, which involves the inflammation of the tendon sheath in the thumb. That disorder was called BlackBerry thumb,” he says. The second can be traced to too many screens being used in the lap or way below the comfortable eye-level— chiropractors are seeing an increase in spinal disc–related disorders called tech-neck. “I teach a course at NYU Polytechnic with a bunch of students who are engineers, and their necks are noticeably forward. Their walking postures have already altered,” Puleio says.

The more long-lasting consequences are the subconscious habits we have developed around technology. Our interaction with screens affects other objects—and people—in our environment. Last year, Nicolas Nova, a Geneva-based ethnographer, worked together with three students at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, to identify patterns in how people use digital technology. The resultant study, Curious Rituals, documents such involuntary acts as Cell Trance, where people talking on the phone wander around, often into the paths of others, and Lazy Viewer, the crazy positions we adopt on beds and couches to make late-night laptop use comfortable. This study promises to help designers and planners understand how users already have changed their patterns around smart devices.  “After we did the project, my consultancy has been contacted by clients, to either apply those findings to their product design, or try to do something similar with their products,” Nova says. One such client was a group of urban planners who were designing a busy railway station. Being made aware of Cell Trance led them to design semi-private areas where people can wander about on their calls safely, without getting in the way of rush-hour commuters.

Illustration courtesy Katherine Miyake

That’s not all. Manufacturers are intertwining the fates of our bodies and our devices more and more deeply. At last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung showed a Smart TV that could be controlled by voice and hand movements. (“I did some user studies to see how people try to use that thing,” Nova says. “The gestures that people have to use are a bit absurd.”) Two months ago, the company unveiled its Galaxy Gear Smartwatch. “It will be interesting to see how people use the Samsung watch,” says Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, and a leading expert in the field. “Supposedly you can make and receive phone calls on the device. Well, what’s the social situation of talking into your wrist, or putting your wrist up to your ear?” And that’s ignoring  the fact that holding my wrist to my ear seems to flex both the shoulder and elbow at an angle that I couldn’t possibly hold for the duration of a long phone call.


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