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User Unfriendly

Consumer Struggles with Personal Technologies, from Clocks and Sewing Machines to Cars and Computers

Joseph J. Corn

Publication Year: 2011

We’ve all been there. Seduced by the sleek designs and smart capabilities of the newest gadgets, we end up stumped by their complicated set-up instructions and exasperating error messages. In this fascinating history, Joseph J. Corn maps two centuries of consumer frustration and struggle with personal technologies. Aggravation with the new machines people adopt and live with is as old as the industrial revolution. Clocks, sewing machines, cameras, lawn mowers, bicycles, electric lights, cars, and computers: all can empower and exhilarate, but they can also exact a form of servitude. Adopters puzzle over which type and model to buy and then how to operate the device, diagnose its troubles, and meet its insatiable appetite for accessories, replacement parts, or upgrades. It intrigues Corn that we put up with the frustrations our technology thrusts upon us, battling with the unfamiliar and climbing the steep learning curves. It is this ongoing struggle, more than the uses to which we ultimately put our machines, that animates this quizzical study. Having extensively researched owner’s manuals, computer user-group newsletters, and how-to literature, Corn brings a fresh, consumer-oriented approach to the history of technology. User Unfriendly will be valuable to historians of technology, students of American culture, and anyone interested in our modern dependency on machines and gadgets.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page

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pp. v-vi

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Introduction: Our Marvelous and Maddening Machines

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pp. 1-20

It is hard to imagine life without machines. We awake to the buzz or serenade of alarm clocks and radios, move to the bathroom to prepare for the day, cleansing and grooming our bodies with electric toothbrushes, shavers, and hair dryers. Then it's into the kitchen, where we manipulate more buttons, switches, knobs, levers, and controls to run our coffeemakers...

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Chapter 1: The Advent of Technology Consumption

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pp. 21-54

Today we take for granted the many technologies that keep track of time: not only our clocks and watches but thermostats, microwave ovens, alarm systems, personal computers, and mobile phones. Timekeepers are everywhere, but once we learn as children to tell time these machines become part of the background of our lives, and as users...

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Chapter 2: Buying an Automobile

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pp. 55-87

As the nineteenth century drew to an end, people were getting excited about the next new thing: the horseless carriage. Unlike horses and humans, both of which had muscles, an automobile did not tire; if fed oil and gasoline, the endurance of this mechanical steed seemed limitless. Had not former bicycle maker Alexander Winton...

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Chapter 3: Running a Car

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pp. 88-119

A full-page photograph in the 1920 book Everyman's Guide to Motor Efficiency depicted what a driver at the time would have seen on climbing behind the wheel of an automobile. No machine had ever presented consumers with a more daunting, less friendly interface, to use the now familiar term for the place where humans interact with ma - chines, and the controls they employ...

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Chapter 4: Tools, Tinkering, and Trouble

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pp. 120-146

In 1908, a Miss McGaw, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia businessman, bought a Wayne roadster. "I tinker around a good deal," she told a local reporter, "just to satisfy my curiosity" about "the working parts of my Wayne." Tinkering, she went on to explain, helped her learn "what to do on the road" when trouble occurred.1 Like other early automobilists, she recognized an essential truth about the new technology...

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Chapter 5: Reading the Owner's Manual

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pp. 147-176

It is out of the question to send an expert with every vehicle shipped," explained the editor of Motor Age in 1902, "but the instruction book can go as a silent instructor."1 His comment captured an essential truth: unlike purchasers of traditional goods, technology consumers desperately needed help---in learning to use a complex machine, in diagnosing its troubles, and in getting it working...

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Chapter 6: Computers and the Tyranny of Technology Consumption

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pp. 177-202

In 1984 Cricket Townsend, the president of a personal computer user group in Fremont, California, was angry. What was "the first thing you learned about your computer?" she asked the readers of the group's newsletter. Was it, she prompted, that there should have been a sign that stated, "buy at your own risk"? how many good program disks have you erased? how many good manuals have you torn to bits because they were of no...

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Epilogue: The Technology Treadmill

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pp. 203-218

Digitized and computerized technologies have relentlessly moved into every corner of our homes and daily lives. From mobile phones to digital clocks, from fax machines to digital cameras, such devices off er wonderful new capabilities, but at the same time these machines can be user unfriendly in the extreme. Consider the lowly thermostat, a device...

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pp. 219-222

I owe thanks to a generation of archivists, librarians, and curators who have helped me along the way. I began my research at the Ford Motor Company archives at the Henry Ford Museum (now known as The Henry Ford), in Dearborn, Michigan, where I was fortunate to meet Dave Crippen, then the head of the archives, who shared his encyclopedic knowledge of the collections and turned me loose in the...


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pp. 223-264


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pp. 265-272

Image Plates

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pp. 273-286

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401935
E-ISBN-10: 1421401932
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421401928
Print-ISBN-10: 1421401924

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 12 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011