Digital technology is experienced at various different scales and in various different contexts. We can talk about digital technologies in relation to the neurons moving around an individual’s brain, and in relation to the vast world-wide infrastructures that constitute the material and ecological basis for all things digital (what Benjamin Bratton terms ‘planetary computing’). There should be many different layers to any account of what digital technology is, and what digital technology does.
One of the most immediate – but usually overlooked – of these contexts is the human body. Of course, some computer scientists explore the coming-together of bodies and computing in terms of ‘embodied computing’ and ‘haptics’. There are interesting literatures on the importance of touch and gesture when engaging with technology. Yet the more mundane truth is that the use of computers, smartphones and other digital devices is more often a source of discomfort, physical inconvenience and pain. As Laine Nooney puts it: “the so-called computer revolution brought with it a world of pain previously unknown to humankind”.
There is a long-standing association between body pain and the use of digital technologies. For example, eye strain, blurred sight, migraines and other vision-related problems were a largely accepted element of using the ‘personal computers’ of the 1980s and 1990s with their flickering low-resolution CRT monitors – what Nooney describes as the “embodied human residue’ of natural interactions between light, glass, plastic, colour, and other properties of the surrounding environment”. Common, too, were pains relating to poise and posture – wrist and hand injuries caused by the ‘repetitive strain’ of manually operating keyboards and mice, back spasms from being stooped over screens, and various other soft tissue and ligament sprains. The subsequent rise of smaller handheld ‘personal devices’ soon brought along new afflictions – prompting talk of ‘Nintendo thumb’ and the phenomenon of ‘text neck’.
As Nooney concludes, all these pains and injuries arise from the straightforward fact that “our bodies, quite literally, were never meant to work this way”. What is telling here, then, are the ways that these incompatibilities have continually been framed as an inconvenience for computer users to deal with themselves. For example, PC owners in the 1990s were encouraged to purchase plexiglass screen filters, ergonomic chairs, gel-filled ‘wrist support’ mouse mats, adjustable desks, and various other ‘peripherals’ to re-compose the human body in ways that might be less antagonised by computer use. In the 2020s, smartphone users are now being encouraged to buy neck-pain warning apps, follow 20-second exercise routines, ‘mindfully’ ration their phone usage, or enrol on physical therapy courses.
Seeing digital technology in terms of embodied discomfort and pain raises a number of insights and issues that can otherwise get glossed over in discussions of the ‘affordances’ and conveniences of the digital age. For example, these issues highlight a stark distinction between those who develop, design and produce digital devices as opposed to those who eventually have to use these devices as best they can. These are distinctions in autonomy and power – subtle differentials between those who innovate and those who are inconvenienced; or in Nooney’s words “between who ha[ve] the freedom to build their world and who [are] saddled with enduring it”.
Seeing digital technologies in terms of bodily pain also reminds us of the inequalities associated with digital technology use. After all, these pains and inconveniences are not equally distributed through the population. For example, in the case of computing in the workplace, the repetitive pains of computer-based labour are disproportionately experienced by already disadvantaged groups. Nooney gives the example of the massed ranks of women working in clerical and administrative labour during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, for whom eight hours of sitting in front of a computer each day was repetitive physical labour that took a considerable physical toll. The same could now be said for Uber drivers, Deliveroo riders, and other low-paid gig workers tethered to their smartphones and unable to afford the luxury of ‘rationing’ their device use, or signing up for restorative yoga courses.
The physical pain of computer use also reminds us how the actual impacts of digital technologies are usually much more mundane than they are spectacular. Issues such as ‘text-neck’ remind us that we need to understand computing not in terms of grand revolutions and solutions, but in terms of messy disruptions to the ways that people have to do things. These are the significant impacts and outcomes of digital device use that need to be talked about much more frequently and much more loudly. As Nooney puts it: “No single computer changed the world, but computer pain has changed us all”
Most importantly, perhaps, the physical pain of computer use highlights the ways in which humans are expected to reshape themselves around the demands of digital technology – from the physical and mental contortions of restricting one’s body movements, through to the often less obvious social and cultural adjustments required to work around the unflinching demands of the device.
Seeing digital technology from the perspective of the human body therefore foregrounds the wider ways in which people are compelled to accommodate technology within their lives – the concessions, negotiations, alterations and compromises inherent in being an ‘end-user’. As Nooney concludes, these aspects of computer use serve as a “reminder that the function of technology has never been to make our lives easier, but only to complicate us in new ways”.
Nooney, L. (2022). Forthcoming chapter. In J. Abate and S. Dick (eds) Abstractions and embodiments: new histories of computing and society, John Hopkins University Press