Living technological change

There was an article in the New York Times recently that summarized findings of scientists studying the effects of light on sleep/wake cycles. One of the most interesting findings, for historians of computing, was the fact that the bright, bluish light put out by modern computer screens very effectively suppresses the body's ability to generate melatonin, and therefore to sleep well and regularly. Disturbed sleep, however, was not the only effect observed. In fact, the studies go on to describe how the suppression of melatonin production can lead to everything from mood disorders to obesity.

This raises the perennial question of how we live through our technologies, and how we are molded by them, not just socially and economically, but even at very basic biological levels.

Of course, the trick in thinking about these fascinating questions is to avoid skidding into a reductive technological determinism. This reminded me of a recent book on preindustrial sleep patterns by Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech that manages to handle this difficult issue well. Ekirch looks at how the technologies and work patterns of preindustrial Britain created wholly different and antimodern sleep patterns that industrialization erased. For instance, farm laborers would regularly wake and break bread or visit with neighbors in the middle of the night, before retiring for a second sleep interval to prepare for the next day. Throughout Ekirch shows how subtle changes in the texture of life attendant on technology are critical to historical understanding.

The question of how we embody technologies--how, in Haraway's estimation, we are all cyborgs--raises myriad historical questions about how people's physical, intellectual, and psychological identities both shift to accommodate technologies and grow in tandem with them. Indeed, one of the panels at this year's SIGCIS Workshop at SHOT will deal specifically with questions of identity and embodiment in computing history, through papers that alternately look at disability, usability, and computing, and papers that ask questions about how gendered identities meshed with the early idea of the "computer scientist."

I hope you'll all be able to attend the workshop this year to continue this discussion, but if not, feel free to live through the technological medium by leaving your mark in the comments!

(And for those of you interested in avoiding the effects of LCD overkill described in the above article, check out f.lux, a program that automatically dims and reddens your screen as day turns into night.)