Unique approach opens up realm of research

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Few academics have written papers on such diverse topics as the history of the German shepherd dog, the proliferation of paper in the computer age and the way in which the chair has come to dominate the way we sit. But then again, not many have carved out as unique a place in academia as Edward Tenner.

Edward Tenner will present a lecture on "Wilson and the Honor System" at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, in 104 Computer Science Building.
"Woodrow Wilson and the Honor Code are rightly linked," Tenner said, "but Wilson disclaimed credit and acknowledged that the code was purely a student initiative. I'll look at the rampant cheating of the 1890s and the mentality behind it, the undergraduate leaders of the Princeton campaign against it and the influence of the code on Wilson's thinking and Princeton's development."
The lecture is in connection with the exhibition, "Woodrow Wilson at Princeton: The Path to the Presidency," on view at Firestone Library through Oct. 27. A reception at the Mudd Manuscript Library will follow the lecture.


Tenner is a visiting research collaborator in the English department, and was once a visiting researcher in Princeton's geosciences department. He was a book editor at Princeton University Press for 16 years, and also held a visiting appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study while a Guggenheim Fellow. The eclectic path of his career was inspired by an encounter with an applied mathematician at the Harvard Society of Fellows, where Tenner spent three years while finishing his Ph.D., which he received from the University of Chicago.

Tenner's colleague didn't study a discrete subject; he studied problems. "What really impressed me was that there was another way to approach research," said Tenner, whose original subspecialty was 19th-century German history. (He earned his bachelor's degree in history from Princeton in 1965.) Instead of delving into a narrow field of knowledge, Tenner reasoned, he could pursue scholarship by having a unique way of looking at things, no matter what the subject or century. His field of concentration has become the interaction between objects and society.

Why things bite back

To that end, Tenner has weighed in on the social and biological history of the German shepherd dog -- sometimes treated as a symbol of virtue -- and is at work on a history of the handshake. Several years ago he explored the reasons why the so-called paperless office that the computer age was supposed to introduce in fact led to the proliferation of paper in offices. And he has studied why the chair -- rather than, say, mats on the floor -- came to dominate the way Westerners sit.

The spirit of his work, according to Tenner, is unexpectedness. "How can we break out of ruts and change our thinking?" Tenner asked.

Most notably, he has examined the way technological advances frequently end up harming us or making our lives more complicated. His work on that topic was published in 1996 in a book called "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences."

Published by Knopf, "Why Things Bite Back" grew out of a file that Tenner kept called "Pushing the Envelope," in which he collected examples of the ways that humans often manage to outwit the systems designed to ensure their safety. For example, he found that professional race-car drivers have a higher rate of accidents driving their ordinary cars than other people. Their knowledge of how cars behave was so superior that they ended up taking greater risks while driving, which inadvertently led to accidents, Tenner said.

As he started to delve into the unintended consequences of technology, Tenner noted the ironies that can often occur. The introduction of football helmets, for example, resulted in more injuries because they permitted players to use their heads as battering rams. Providing air-conditioning in subway trains actually pumped more heat into the air around the cars, so the platforms ended up 10 degrees hotter than the air outside. "Why Things Bite Back" has been translated into five languages.

Many of Tenner's discoveries are made by digging into medical literature. "There are gems in obscure journals," he said.

Despite his work pointing out the drawbacks of technological advances, Tenner describes himself as a "great technological enthusiast." But he is hardly a gadget freak. Though he wears a cell phone at his waist, his computer is a used one that he purchased for $50 two years ago. He drives a 1989 Honda Civic and doesn't own a personal digital assistant.

He is currently finishing a book, begun as a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, that will deal with the reciprocal relationship between everyday objects and our bodies. "Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology," which will be published next summer by Knopf, will explore how things like footwear, keyboards and eyeglasses affect the lives of those who use them. For example, using cell phones to send text messages tapped out with one's thumbs has become so popular in Asia and Europe that it has led to new uses for the thumb. "Many kids in Japan even point and ring doorbells with their thumbs instead of their index fingers," Tenner said.

Tenner hopes the book will introduce a new perspective on design. "One of my points is to suggest a new approach to design that recognizes the crucial role of the user -- something that interests cognitive psychologists and economists," Tenner said. He also is interested in developing a strategy for anticipating the unintended uses of an object that are discovered by consumers, as when a group of California teens invented BMX cycling, a type of bicycle racing, by riding their bikes on dirt trails designed for motorcycles. The industry soon caught up, developing bikes specially designed for the sport.

But make no mistake: Tenner is not by any means limiting his research to the computer age. Also in the works is a history of the top hat.

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