Thursday, July 24, 2008

New Technology Means New Injuries

Where I live, you can’t throw a pebble without hitting someone who works at a technology company. Technology rules the Bay Area. Blackberries, iPhones, iPods, Bluetooth headsets – I see them everywhere. LinkedIn Profile? Done. Twitter? Been there. Blog? Of course! Don’t you?

Although I work online almost every day, I barely touched anything with a silicon chip in it until I was in college, when PCs were just catching on. When I was ten, I borrowed my parents’ old typewriter to write short stories for fun. I remember that the keys would cross and jam if I typed too fast. Sometime I’d land my hands back on the keyboard wrong after I pushed the carriage return, and type a line of gibberish before I realized what I’d done.

As someone who remembers the drudgery of using carbon paper and correction fluid and smudgy typewriter ribbons at her first office job, I’m all in favor of technological advances. But making things easier can create fresh problems, and as manual and electric typewriters faded away, repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome began to rise. With a typewriter, you have many built-in breaks for your hands, such as pushing the carriage return or feeding in a fresh sheet of paper. Without any electronic boost, manual typewriter keys also require a fair amount of pressure just to work. All this slows down your typing speed, but it doesn’t hurt your hands.

Today’s keyboards and devices encourage a light touch and micro-movements of the hands and wrist, with minimal breaks. This hardware irritates the nerves, tendons, and muscles in the hands and arms, creating new medical problems such as "Blackberry thumb."

The hardware manufacturers generally seem uninterested in the injuries their devices have caused. Dell Computer, for example, the largest desktop and laptop manufacturer in the world, ships standard PCs with an ergonomically-unwise flat keyboard and mouse. They do provide a handy one-page description of how to set up your desktop computer on their website, but users who want to prevent a repetitive strain injury need to pay extra for break software and ergonomic tools.

Instead of repetitive strain injury prevention, the technology industry has focused on increasing revenues by adding lots of (often unnecessary) features to devices and by shrinking the footprint of silicon chips as much as possible. Smaller chips lower chip manufacturing costs and ultimately technology device costs, and help manufacturers shrink devices to make them lighter and more portable. Not surprisingly, lighter, smaller, cheaper, feature-rich devices are more attractive to customers.

Enter Apple Computer, whose forthcoming MacBook laptop is rumored to have an iPhone-like touch screen user interface. It sounds cool, and probably will sell like hotcakes, but it also sounds like a fresh source of injuries. Using a touch screen, presumably touching the screen lightly with just one or two fingers, is hardly the same experience as pecking away at a typewriter.

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