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Monkeys don't sit on chairs

The objects we use - from baby bottles to lounge chairs - shape our minds and bodies

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Plenty of us have thought about how people create new technol- ogies. In his latest book, "Our Own Devices," scholar and polymath Edward Tenner considers how technology creates new people.

This ambitious, stimulating work focuses on the reciprocal relationship between human beings and the machines that affect everyday life. Tenner explores his theories by looking at how we feed our babies, walk, relax, make art, even butt heads. Though his examples are far-flung, his thesis - that man and machine coax each other toward new expressions and social practices - is taut.

"This book is about the changes we have made in ourselves: how everyday things affect how we use our bodies - how we sit, stand, walk, and communicate," Tenner writes. "And it is about their symbolic side: how they affect our images of each other."

He has no ax to grind, though he begins with the contentious issue of bottle-feeding infants, which became viable in the 19th century. He takes no position on the issue, only saying, "The 20th century gave a scientific and moral victory to breast-feeding but a de facto social and economic victory to bottle-feeding after the first few months of life." In any case, infants' behavior and mouths adjusted.

He proceeds to zoris, the rubber sandals ubiquitous in warmer climates. Singer Harry Belafonte may have popularized zoris by walking the streets of Kyoto during a 1950s tour. Tenner notes that these sandals harm the environment - "Discarded plastic footwear is a major part of the world's flotsam" - but he also observes that they represent social aspiration.

Such insights, which build on the anthropological work of Marcel Mauss and Jacques Ellul, also inform his history of the musical keyboard as it evolved from ancient organ to modern synthesizer. Neither it nor its relative, the QWERTY textual keyboard, has changed much in the past 100 years. What has, he says, is the reach. The piano has gone the way of the parlor it once dominated, making way for the computer.

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