"Why Things Bite Back" stands as one of my favorite books, and is definitely the best single volume available on the unintended consequences of technology. I was, of course, eager to read Edward Tenner's "Our Own Devices," a volume more focused on the historical adaptations of a select few technologies and man's co-evolution with them.
Tenner intentionally selected mundane technologies that get no more than a passing thought on a daily basis, and in several cases not only tracks historical adaptations of specific inventions and technologies (the history of the baby bottle, or eyeglasses, for instance), but also contrasts the diametrically opposed ends of the technological spectrum as it applies to what are similar design constructs (for instance posture chairs versus reclining chairs, and musical keyboards versus text keyboards.)
The scope of Tenner's research is astounding, and makes seemingly mundane items interesting. Particularly strong are the chapters on the zori (a sandal), and eyeglasses. In the chapter on zoris, for example, Tenner documents the work of a Liberian craftsman, Saarenald T. S. Yaawaisan, who recycled old sandals into toy helicopters until he had acquired all the used sandals in Monrovia, at which point he began purchasing new sandals to make into toys. The story goes on to explain the subsequent problems with Monrovian sandal recycling vis-a-vis the release of dioxin into the environment. This illustrates the fanciful research Tenner put in to make this an eminently readable book.
My favorite chapter, and one that will strike a chord with many readers is on the history of eyeglasses. Eyeglasses have a much longer and complex history than I had expected, and I found his insights correlating the rise of literacy with the rise in myopia interesting. Particularly interesting in the chapter are references to the visual range requirements needed for more primitive hunter-gatherers versus modern civilized man. Tenner correctly credits the work of behavioral biologist Jakob von Uexkull, and discusses his concepts of visual perception ("merkwelt") and related theories with great aplomb. Also discussed in this chapter is the role the Catholic church had in promoting the perception of eyeglasses (even during the Inquisition), and the role of aristocratic Europe in shaping public perception of correctable lenses. Specific technologies and manufacturing techniques (mainly European) are discussed, including those of famed presbyope (and cryptologist) Duke August the Younger of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, who promoted fine craftsmanship of lenses over cheaply made products from Florence.
This book is extremely well researched, and is generally very absorbing for those interested in the history and implications of technology. Even though it is a bit longwinded at times, I give it five stars for eloquently describing the co-evolution of man and machine.
The book finished more interesting than it began, but overall the book was a disappointment. Many of the topics were interesting - shoes, chairs, music and text keyboards, eye glasses - and occasionally the writing was interesting.
Mr. Tenner's style was more academic - many facts and dates and names - but he rarely made any of the people or situations come alive. If he followed that path, the book would have been far more interesting and entertaining. For me, what makes history is not the the facts and figures, but the people and the color of the situation.
After reading the book I have many interesting tidbits of information, but unless someone is HIGHLY interested in the history of chairs or one of the topics in the table of contents, I can not recommend they pick up this book. I wish I could.
Tenner gives loads of citations and research but doesnt even have a thesis. He rambles off example of interactions between humanity and its technology. His writing style is poor and will lose you in his trail of thought. He is very bad at describing what he is thinking. He never actually "says" anything. All he does is present research.
He very rarely, if ever, derives a conclusion from what he brings up. He should not be called a philosopher of everyday technology, because at least in this book, he never actually does any thinking.