Technology and Us

by Robert Rickover

“What is the best use of technology?”

This question is asked more and more as the pace of technological change has accelerated. Greater speed, power, inter-connectedness etc. can produce all sorts of obvious benefits. We visit distant places quickly and cheaply thanks to jet airplanes. We have access to cheap, reliable power in our homes and in our cars. With the computer revolution, we can create, manage, transfer and store vast amounts of data in ways that would have been unimaginable to earlier generations.

But with those benefits have come come very serious drawbacks. The jet that can whisk you to Hawaii or Paris can also be used to kill thousands of people and inflict billions of dollars of damage. Cheap power is often generated by unsafe, polluting plants. Computer technology and the internet can be used to invade out privacy and spread false information around the world at the click of a mouse.

“What is the best use of technology?” is certainly an important question, one that probably deserves a good deal more attention. But there is another, related, question that is rarely asked, one that may ultimately be far more important:

“How do we make the best use ourselves as we live our lives employing these new technologies?”

Take our interaction with computers. I first saw computers being routinely used in the mid-1960s by ticket agents in airports. A third of a century later, they are everywhere - at work, in schools, at home.

By the early 1980’s there was increasing talk of Video Display Terminal (VDT) problems with eyes, neck pain etc. Terms like Repetitive Stress Injury(RSI) and carpal tunnel syndrome entered our everyday language. It became commonplace to see people walking around with special braces for their lower arms and wrists. Surgery is increasingly a last resort.

Why did this happen? Was it faulty computer and furniture design? This is what ergonomists have argued and a whole industry has sprung up to re-design the work environment to make injuries less likely. Countless magazine and newspaper articles give ergonomically-inspired advice on proper sitting, screen and keyboard placement etc.

But the RSI epidemic continues unabated nonetheless. Why?

I believe the principal reason is our failure to look closely at ourselves and how we function as we go through life - our failure to ask ourselves “How am I using myself as I drive, as I walk, as I clean the dishes? As I use my computer?”

The best ergonomic design will do nothing to prevent RSI if we are using ourselves badly. And if we are using ourselves well, we can function without undue strain even in difficult, awkward situations. Ergonomic solutions are not useless but they are only a part of the solution.

So how can you learn to use yourself more efficiently? Is there a proven method one can learn?

The work of F. Matthias Alexander, today commonly referred to as the Alexander Technique, is just such a method. It has a long history of helping people with precisely the sort of stress-related issues that more and more people today are facing. The whole question of how we use ourselves is precisely what Alexander spend his life’s work on. Indeed his third book was titled “The Use of the Self”.

The introductions to this and two other books by Alexander were written by Professor John Dewey. Dewey was America’s most famous philosopher and a leading proponent of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism. He was also very influential in the development of American education in the first part of the last century. He is sometimes called “The father of American education.”

Dewey knew from firsthand experience that Alexander’s ideas and teaching method (today carried on my thousands of teachers worldwide) was of the utmost importance to us all as we faced the challenges of rapid technological change.

In his 1932 introduction to The Use of the Self he wrote:

“In the present state of the world, it is evident that the control we have gained of physical energies, heat, light, electricity, etc., without having first secured control of our use of ourselves is a perilous affair. Without the control of our use of ourselves, our use of other things is blind; it may lead to anything.”

"If there can be developed a technique which will enable individuals really to secure the right use of themselves, then the factor upon which depends the final use of all other forms of energy will be brought under control. Mr. Alexander has evolved this technique."

This wasn’t just an abstract notion with Dewey. In his book Freedom to Change, the late Frank Pierce Jones of Tufts University wrote of a conversation he had with Dewey a few years before he died:

“(Dewey) said that he had been taken by (the Alexander Technique) first because it provided a demonstration of the unity of mind and body. He thought that the demonstration had struck him more forcibly than it might have struck someone who got the sensory experience easily and quickly, because he was such a slow learner. He had always been physically awkward, he said, and performed all actions too quickly and impulsively and without thought. ‘Thought’ in his case was saved for ‘mental’ activity, which had always been easy for him. It was a revelation to discover that thought could be applied with equal advantage to everyday movements.

“The greatest benefit he got from lessons, Dewey said, was the ability to stop and think before acting. Physically, he noted an improvement first in his vision and then in breathing. Before he had lessons, his ribs had been very rigid. Now they had a marked elasticity which doctors still commented on, though he was close to eighty-eight.”

Alexander’s ideas are well worth exploring by anyone concerned about the issues raised in this article.

RESOURCES: explores the relationship between the science of ergonomics and the Alexander Technique.

The John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander Homepage has extensive information about the connections between these two great twentieth century thinkers.

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique provides comprehensive information about the Technique.

Freedom to Change, and a great many other books about the Alexander Technique can be found at The Alexander Technique Bookstore

Robert Rickover teaches the Alexander Technique in Lincoln, Nebraska and in Toronto, Canada. His website, The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique, is a comprehensive source of information about the Alexander Technique.