Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Ergonomicon

(image taken from Wikipedia)

Forget about cubicles for a moment.

Ergonomics is the study of efficient interaction between people and the tools they use. The cavemen were practicing ergonomics as they improved their technique for chipping flint into knives. Every dent worn clear for a thumb made the world a more interactive place, and increased mankind's influence on Earth.

(Image taken from

In the late 17th century the Stradivaris reached the pinnacle of ergonomic science. The family layered thin laminates of spruce, willow and maple and treated them with minerals, borax, honey and egg white. In ways now forgotten, they crafted violins whose every lacquered tree cell reacted harmoniously with every contracting and stretching muscle and bone cell in the musician's fingers.

(painting Antonio Stradivari by Edgar Bundy via Wikipedia)

Our manipulation of objects is the only way that we interact with our world in a lasting way. Because of this, ergonomics is the basic medium for our experience of life and how we touch the lives of others. A race car driver that has learned to feel and compensate for the slip of gravel beneath traction understands something that a physicist doesn't. The captain of a sailboat knows wind in a way a meteorologist in a TV studio never will.

The most ubiquitous tool we relate to today is the computer. That most of modern life (and all of modern ergonomics) is tangled in a web of USB chords and locked behind cubicle walls is a tremendous loss. While digital devices are more versatile than any tool in the past, keyboards have no understanding of either subtlety or precision. Computer applications can be found or coded to do almost anything we can imagine, but the careful symphony of which our muscles are capable is lost.

The iPad's touch screen is one small step toward digital mechanisms that efficiently understand the nuances of movement. We and our tools will continue a parallel evolution toward total immersion. Eventually, we will reach a point of synchronization where the very environment we walk through, from architecture to houseplant, will be our interactive tools and we will play the fabric of our world like a theremin; leaving music and paperwork, literature and legal contracts in our footprints.

We will break free of our cubicles and be capable of dancing a spreadsheet that understands the vague shades that live between columns.

(image The Ergonomicon by Richard Penner)


  1. This is interesting. Brian Eno once said that the problem with computers is that there's not enough Africa in them.

  2. Wow. Cool your warm jets, Brian Eno. That is pretty great.