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  • User Unfriendly: Consumer Struggles with Personal Technologies, from Clocks and Sewing Machines to Cars and Computers by Joseph J. Corn
  • Kathleen Franz (bio)
User Unfriendly: Consumer Struggles with Personal Technologies, from Clocks and Sewing Machines to Cars and Computers. By Joseph J. Corn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. v+272. $55.

Much like popular-advice literature written by users for users, Joseph Corn begins User Unfriendly with his own vexed encounters with machines. An early adopter of personal computers in the 1980s, Corn reflects on his struggles with PC and printer to raise new questions about the consumption of personal technologies. As he notes, scholars of consumption have too often lumped personal technologies in with other kinds of goods, overlooking the unique experiences of choosing, learning to use, repairing, and maintaining machines. By focusing this study on all aspects of technology consumption, from shopping to repairing, he redefines how we think about consumption and user-technology relationships. "Personal technologies," Corn argues ". . . can be user unfriendly in ways that traditional goods are not."We must learn to do things "the machine's way," and such learning demands a great deal. Early adopters suffer the most, but all consumers face similar demands (p. 13).

Corn begins his exploration of unfriendly technologies in the nineteenth century. Material life before 1800 involved consumption, but most everyday technologies were fairly traditional. Consumers knew how to use them. Then along came clocks, sewing machines, and perhaps the most complex consumer technologies, automobiles and personal computers. The six chapters move chronologically from the introduction of mass-produced clocks in the early nineteenth century to the present day, with the first chapter discussing sewing machines and other nineteenth-century consumer technologies, chapters 2 through 5 focusing on the automobile, and chapter 6 looking at computers and digital technologies. Finally, an epilogue takes the reader back to contemporary and personal questions about our relationship to unfriendly, non-intuitive, and just plain problematic design.

As Corn points out early, not all machines challenged consumers. He compares unfriendly technologies with ones that were relatively easy to understand and use. Sewing machines, for instance, presented domestic consumers with a befuddling array of choices. The machine demanded that users learn to decipher new kinds of manuals and technical writing, and adopt new practices of maintenance, such as oiling parts. Other technologies were not so demanding. Corn examines the adoption of the bicycle, telephone, and snapshot camera to illuminate a sliding scale of difficulty. While all these things required some new learning or new physical habits, or upset cultural conventions, they also drew on familiar skills. [End Page 434]

Early automobiles promised many benefits for buyers but were often the epitome of user unfriendliness. They were the largest, most complex machines that nearly all consumers would own. As such, Corn makes them the centerpiece of the book. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 dissect the challenges of purchasing, running, tinkering with, and reading about the inner workings of the automobile, respectively. While the automobile promised freedom of mobility, it demanded a level of technological competence previously unknown to most consumers. Early adopters had to sort through a variety of options, from electric and steam to internal combustion. They often got machines that were intentionally incomplete, like the Model T, and that required owners to purchase amenities from after-market parts suppliers. Even as the car became more complete and more reliable in the 1930s, the process of purchase could still feel like a form of consumer hazing.

Corn explores knowledge acquisition not as diffusion but as a complex, challenging process that included grappling with design and reading about the technology. As other scholars have shown, the car posed challenges that were wholly new. He defines these as starting, steering, shifting gears, stopping, and supervising maintenance (p. 93). Owners learned to master the machine through classes, from other drivers, and, as with other technologies under discussion in this book, through manuals. Corn adds much to the scholarly conversations on visual culture and technological know-how through his analysis of technical writing. He argues convincingly that advice manuals and articles became "historical actors in their own right" (p. 150). Although the style...